Two weeks before delivering his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama dubbed 2014 “The Year of Action.” Most of the actions he then pledged and called for in the Jan. 28 speech will directly affect U.S. workplaces.
Clearly frustrated by the perennial gridlock on Capitol Hill, Obama proclaimed that he would bypass Congress and exercise his executive authority to push the administration’s policies forward.
“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
One of his first executive orders will require all federal contractors to raise their minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.
He then challenged Congress to enact legislation pending in the House and Senate that would also increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10.
“Ten-ten, that’s pretty easy to remember,” Obama said. “I am going to call this the 1010 Act, and Congress needs to pass it this year. So, join the rest of the country and say yes. Let’s give America a raise.”
Critics of the proposal have claimed a sudden increase in the minimum wage would stifle job growth as employers would be reluctant to hire entry-level and lower-wage workers because of the additional costs. But Obama pointed to several private businesses such as Costco and a small pizzeria located in Minnesota that acted on their own to raise their minimum wages to more than $10 an hour.
“I hope other employers will follow the lead of these forward-thinking business leaders,” Obama said. “I urge other business owners to do what you can to increase your employees’ wages. It’s good for our economy, and it’s good for America.”
Obama then took the opportunity to issue a challenge to state and local government leaders to raise the minimum wage if possible. He pointed to five states that had approved minimum wage increases since January 2013. The president urged “every mayor, governor and state legislator” not to wait on Congress to act and said that local and state political leaders had it within their powers to help lift lower-wage workers out of poverty.
Throughout his speech, the president focused on ways to increase pay and work opportunities for all U.S. workers, echoing themes he has promoted since taking office in January 2009, such as equal pay for women and revamping federal tax code so that lower- and medium-wage workers have more access to income tax credits.
To increase workers’ savings, Obama announced the launch of a new program designed to help workers who don’t have employer-sponsored benefits such as pensions or 401(k) plans save for retirement.
“Tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings,” he said. “MyRA is a new savings bond that will encourage folks to build a nest egg.”
After the speech, White House officials said that they would release more details on the new retirement savings vehicle as the president travels across the country on several planned trips to promote his proposed policies and executive orders. CNN reported that MyRA would be offered through Roth IRA accounts.
Innovation, Education and Worker Training
The president called business innovation the key to creating the best job opportunities possible for U.S. workers. He described a proposal first made in his 2013 State of the Union address to develop more than a dozen innovation and research hubs throughout the country. He said that two of the hubs have been launched in Youngstown, Ohio, and in Raleigh, N.C. The innovation centers are partnerships between universities and private-sector employers to develop new products and business opportunities.
The president said that, during 2014, his administration would announce the launch of six more innovation hubs. He then challenged Congress to come up with bipartisan legislation that would fund at least six more of the research-and-development hubs.
“Bipartisan bills in both houses would double the number of these hubs and the jobs they create. So get those bills to my desk and put more Americans back to work,” he said.
The president also issued a challenge to businesses and community colleges throughout the nation to create new partnerships for developing training and education programs that ensure students receive the training and skills they need to get a good job.
In addition, Obama announced that he had asked Vice President Joe Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of federal training programs. The goal of the reform effort, the president said, is to ensure the programs were focused on training workers to have “the skills employers need, and match workers to good jobs that need to be filled right now.”
“That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life,” the president said. “It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs.”
Obama urged congressional leaders to work on reforming the nation’s unemployment insurance system and once again called for an extension of jobless benefits to workers who have been out of work for more than six months.
“Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance that just expired for 1.6 million people,” he said. “Let’s give these hardworking, responsible Americans a chance.”
The president then announced a White House initiative to expand job opportunities for the long-term unemployed.The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is supporting the initiative with guidelines for HR hiring managers and tips for jobseekers. SHRM leaders will attend a meeting at the White House on Jan. 31 to discuss the endeavor.
“I've been urging CEOs to give more long-term unemployed workers a fair shot at that new job and new chance to support their families,” he said. “And, this week, many business leaders will come to the White House to make that commitment real.”
The president said everyone on Capitol Hill had a choice to make and needed to set aside partisan bickering and gridlock to ensure that the U.S. economy continues expanding and the number of job opportunities keeps increasing.
“The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress,” he said. “As president, I’m committed to making Washington work better, and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here. I believe most of you are too.”
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.