President Announces Paid-Leave Proposals


By Allen Smith January 15, 2015

The lack of paid family leave across the nation remains a sore spot for President Barack Obama, who on Jan. 15, 2015, called on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow working Americans to earn up to seven days per year of paid sick time.

Katharine Parker, an attorney with Proskauer in New York City, told SHRM Online that the Healthy Families Act, a bill championed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., that stalled in the last Congress, would:

  • Cover employers with 15 or more employees.
  • Provide accrual of one hour of sick time for every 30 hours worked up to 56 hours.
  • Provide employees with the ability to use leave after 60 days of employment.
  • Carry over leave from year to year.
  • Allow the use of sick leave for an employee’s illness, as well as a sick family member or to deal with domestic violence (e.g., medical treatment or going to court).
  • Require reinstatement of unused sick leave if the employee is rehired within a year.

The law would be particularly difficult to administer as it expressly states that it would not pre-empt state or local laws, Parker noted. “It’s a one-size-fits-all law that does not take into account things it should, such as part-time employees,” she added.

The law does allow employers to ask for documentation if there are three sick days in a row, remarked Scott Fanning, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Chicago. Fanning doubted the Healthy Families Act would pass but pointed out that the president has said he will encourage states and municipalities to pass similar legislation.

This was reflected in the president’s remarks.

“Today, I'm going to be announcing our support and advocacy on behalf of a national seven-sick-day policy all across the country. And we're going to go beat the drum across cities and states to encourage not only that these laws are adopted nationally, but also that employers start adopting these policies as well,” Obama remarked in North Baltimore, Md. “And we’re also going to help cities and states study and look at the feasibility of … paid family leave generally.”

Patchwork of Laws

A White House release noted that paid sick leave laws have passed in Eugene, Ore.; Newark, N.J.; New York City; Oakland, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; San Diego; and Seattle. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., also have sick-leave laws, Parker noted. Many other cities in New Jersey also have passed sick-leave laws, including East Orange, Irvington, Jersey City, Montclair, Passaic, Paterson and Trenton, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. California, Connecticut and Massachusetts all have paid sick leave laws as well, Fanning said.

“We know that today, 43 million private-sector workers in the U.S. are without any form of paid sick leave,” Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to Obama and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, said on LinkedIn on Jan. 14, 2015. “The United States remains the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave.”

Presidential Memorandum

Obama also signed a presidential memorandum to modernize parental-leave policy at federal agencies, directing agencies to allow for the advance of six weeks of paid sick leave for parents with a new child, employees caring for ill family members and other sick-leave-eligible uses. Advanced annual leave also is to be made available to employees for the placement of a foster child in their home.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) has said that employees will pay back the advanced sick leave when they earn additional leave, Fanning noted. He predicted there would be some waste, though, as OPM would be unlikely to go after employees who quit to recoup the advanced sick leave.

Other Proposals

Other proposals supported by the president include:

  • Legislation to provide paid family leave to federal workers. The president is proposing legislation similar to the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. The act would provide federal employees with six weeks of paid administrative leave for the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child. The proposals also would let parents use sick days to care for a healthy child after an adoption or a birth mother’s period of incapacitation.
  • A new plan to help more states create paid-leave programs. The president’s fiscal year 2016 budget will propose $2.2 billion in mandatory funding to reimburse up to five states for three years for the administrative costs and half of the cost of benefits associated with implementing a paid-leave program.
  • New funding for feasibility studies. The Department of Labor will use existing funds this year to offer $1 million in new funding for its Paid Leave Analysis Grant Program, which provides competitive grants to six to 10 states or municipalities to conduct paid-leave feasibility studies.

“At a time when all parents are working in more than 60 percent of households with children (up from just 40 percent in 1965) and 63 percent of women with children under the age of five participate in the labor force (compared with 31 percent in the early 1970s), one fact is resoundingly clear: The fundamental structure of our workplaces has simply not kept pace with the changing American family,” Jarrett remarked.

The president heard from a mother of two in Maryland recently, Jarrett said. “She was working full-time while raising a family, which she said felt too often like ‘a no-win situation.’ She told us that she hopes that when her daughters are grown ‘times will be different and flexibility will be the standard so that they don’t have to choose between caring for their sick child or dying parent, and their job.’”

Jarrett remarked, “Let’s make that happen now.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.


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