President Obama on Thursday rolled out a new family leave policy for federal workers and called on Congress to make it law for private-sector workers as well, the latest executive action from Mr. Obama’s pen designed both to pressure congressional Republicans and to demonstrate the president will to act on his own if necessary.
But GOP congressional leaders immediately shot down the proposal, and in its current form it appears to have little chance of gaining traction on Capitol Hill. Moving forward, legal specialists say there’s little the president can do on mandatory paid leave without lawmakers’ cooperation, beyond using his bully pulpit to push the issue.
Much like Mr. Obama’s effort to raise the national minimum wage, analysts say the administration likely will end up relying on the states to drive change.
“The president will have very little power to enact this unilaterally in the private sector without the support of Congress,” said Matt Faustman, a specialist in workplace law and CEO of UpCounsel, a company that connects small businesses with affordable attorneys. “This will likely be where this whole thing ends up, in the laps of the states, because the president won’t be able to do very much here.”
Still, heading into next week’s State of the Union address, the paid-leave proposal was rolled out with great fanfare.
First unveiled Wednesday night in a LinkedIn blog post by senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama’s plan will mandate that federal employees receive at least six weeks of paid leave time when they have a child. In its upcoming budget proposal, the administration also will ask for $2.2 billion to reimburse states that choose to enact expanded paid-leave programs.
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But beyond those steps, which Mr. Obama made official in a presidential memorandum, the rest of the White House’s ambitious proposal relies fully on Congress.
The president called on lawmakers to pass the Healthy Families Act, stalled legislation that would give millions of Americans the chance to earn up to seven days a year of paid sick time. He urged states and cities to pursue their own programs, a nod to the fact that the new GOP-controlled Congress is unlikely to embrace his proposal.
Only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island offer paid family and medical leave, according to The Associated Press. Federal law allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of time off without losing their job to care for a new child, recover from illness or care for a sick family member, but workers do not draw a paycheck during their absence.
Mr. Obama pushed the initiative during an unannounced stop at a Baltimore restaurant Thursday, using it to make the broader case that, in the final two years of his presidency, he will continue to fight for the middle class and will not allow himself to become a lame-duck leader.
“We can make sure that moms and dads don’t have to choose between looking after their kids and doing what they need to do at work, thinking about all those families that are now trying to care for an aging parent,” he said before meeting with Democratic senators at a party retreat in the city. “That kind of flexibility ultimately is going to make our economy stronger and is just one piece of what needs to be a really aggressive push to ensure that if you work hard in this country then you can make it.”
But Republicans said that Mr. Obama’s plan, if fully enacted, would cost American businesses $11.4 billion over five years.
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“Americans have great freedom when it comes to work,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican. “They can choose the career they like and negotiate with their employer for the things they need, and they can one day become employers, opening businesses with few restrictions compared to the rest of the world. One more government mandate, however well-intentioned, will only reduce those freedoms.”
The National Federation of Independent Businesses, the largest trade group representing small employers, also came out against Mr. Obama’s proposal Thursday, warning it would raise costs and kill jobs.
Mr. Obama’s action Thursday will not apply to federal contractors. Legal specialists say the president could have required all companies doing business with the federal government to offer expanded paid-leave programs, but White House officials confirmed they are not pursuing such a course right now.
“Employees of federal contractors, like other workers, should have paid leave available to them. While federal contractors are not currently covered under the policy announced today, we would encourage employers of federal contractors to examine paid leave policies,” a White House spokesperson said.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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