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Obama Shifts Federal Sick-Leave Rules, Urges Congress To Follow

President Obama discussed the need for paid sick leave with women at Charmington's Cafe in Baltimore Thursday. With him are Vika Jordan (from left), Amanda Rothschild and Mary Stein.
Evan Vucci
President Obama discussed the need for paid sick leave with women at Charmington's Cafe in Baltimore Thursday. With him are Vika Jordan (from left), Amanda Rothschild and Mary Stein.

Federal workers with a pressing need can take an advance of up to six weeks of sick leave under a new policy unveiled by President Obama on Thursday. The White House is urging Congress to make paid sick leave mandatory in the U.S.

The president signed a memorandum today instructing federal agencies to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave to workers who need the time to care for a new child, a family member or for similar uses.

As for the private sector, the White House says, 43 million workers do not have paid sick leave. And the new push to help them has been building for months now.

"U.S. labor laws date to the 1930s, a time when most families had a stay-at-home mother," NPR's Jennifer Ludden reported a year ago, when she interviewed state legislators about paid sick leave. "The only federally mandated leave covers just half of the workforce, and many people tell pollsters they can't afford to use it because it's unpaid."

The Obama administration says the lack of paid sick time creates situations in which employees can't take time to recover from illness, or their children are sent to school with a fever because their parents can't take time off from work to stay home with them.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports:

"President Obama is calling on Congress to pass a bill that would give all workers the opportunity to earn up to seven paid sick days per year. He's also encouraging state and local governments to pass their own paid leave requirements, even if Congress fails to act.

"The White House says more generous leave policies would boost productivity, reduce employee turnover, and encourage more moms to stay in the workforce."

The push for wider access to paid sick leave comes after a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which cited "research that shows that paid and unpaid leave can help workers balance obligations at home and in the workplace — and help parents and those with medical needs remain in the workforce."

"The United States is currently the only developed country that does not offer government-sponsored paid maternity leave," the report stated. "Many of these countries also provide paid paternity leave, elder care benefits, and generous paid sick leave."

Today, the administration also promoted the Healthy Families Act, which would let millions of U.S. workers earn up to seven days of paid sick time each year. The legislation would apply to employers with at least 15 workers.

President Obama's budget will propose more than $2 billion in funding and grants to help states install their own sick leave systems.

The plan met with some criticism, including from Forbes contributor Tim Worstall, who predicted that the changes would result in lower pay and are unnecessary.

"Those who value the ability to take paid sick leave presumably have self-sorted themselves into jobs where they get it and those that don't haven't," Worstall wrote.

Only a few U.S. states and the District of Columbia have approved laws making paid family and medical leave mandatory. Washington state also has a parental leave law on its books, but the state has postponed its implementation because of problems funding it.

Some U.S. cities have passed similar laws — but in recent years, several states have taken pre-emptive steps barring others from doing so.

About 60 percent of American workers are eligible for sick leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the White House says. But the administration adds that despite providing up to 12 weeks off work, the FMLA doesn't do enough by itself, as it doesn't require the workers to be paid during the time off.

"For too many Americans, unpaid leave is unaffordable," the White House says. "Moreover, evidence shows that mothers, who do typically take some time off in order to give birth, are more likely to return to their jobs and to stay in the workforce if they are able to take paid maternity leave."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.