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With many indicators pointing to a rebounding U.S. economy, President Barack Obama declared during his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, 2015, that the best way to sustain the recent economic success was to create and promote policies designed to help middle-class Americans. Many of the ideas he proposed to strengthen and propel the economy would directly affect U.S. workplaces—including equal pay for men and women, an increase in the federal minimum wage, revised overtime regulations, and better access to child care and paid sick leave.
“At this moment with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production, we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth,” Obama said. “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years and for decades to come.”
The best path to achieve the goal of sustained economic growth, the president said, is through “middle-class economics.”
“Middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change,” he said. “That means helping folks afford child care, college, health care, a home, retirement. And my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year.”
According to Obama, one of the first steps to reach these goals is to increase access to high-quality child care for working parents. The president proposed passing a bill designed to increase the number of child care options available to parents and to enact tax cuts for working families of up to $3,000 per child.
The president said paid sick leave is an essential step in providing economic stability to lower- and middle-income workers. He pointed to the fact that the United States is the only advanced country in the world without guaranteed paid sick or maternity leave for its workers.
“This forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home. So I’ll be taking new action to help states adopt paid leave laws of their own,” Obama said. “And since paid sick leave won where it was on the ballot last November, let’s put it to a vote right here in Washington. Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.”
Manuevering a paid-sick leave measure through the Republican-controlled Congress will be hard, if not impossible. A previous effort stalled when the Democrats held the majority in the Senate.
Business and employer groups such as the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) also oppose a federal leave mandate.
“The president’s call for a federal sick-leave mandate is the wrong approach to ensuring that workers have time off,” SHRM stated in response to the president’s sick-leave proposal. “Mandates limit employer flexibility and stifle workplace innovation and creativity, which are the hallmark of effective and flexible workplaces. As an alternative, SHRM is committed to expanding voluntary workplace flexibility initiatives, including paid leave and flexible work arrangements, and welcomes further dialogue on proposals to encourage greater employer adoption of these initiatives.”
After the president’s speech, observers agreed that Obama understands the challenge of getting the Republican-controlled Congress to pass paid-leave legislation and therefore indicated in his speech that he intends to promote the issue at the state level, where the likelihood of success increases. In November 2014, paid-sick-leave measures appeared on local and state ballots and passed in Massachusetts; Oakland, Calif.; and the New Jersey cities of Montclair and Trenton.
Obama once again urged Congress to give U.S. workers a raise by increasing the federal minimum wage. During the 2014 State of the Union address, Obama made raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour a centerpiece of his speech. This year, the president didn’t suggest a new rate for the wage but instead urged members of Congress to think about the consequences of their inaction.
“To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it,” he said. “If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
Obama said his proposals to help improve worker pay and benefits would only succeed if American workers possessed the skills to do their jobs.
“To make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills,” he said.
The president announced that he would send a proposal to Congress that would eliminate the cost of two years of study at a community college. He pointed to Tennessee and Chicago as localities that have made the first two years of community college free to all students.
“I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” he said. “And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure Americans already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.”
Obama said that his administration would continue to connect community colleges with employers to find ways to best train workers for higher-paying jobs such as those in health care, software development and robotics.
“Tonight, I'm also asking more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships—opportunities that give workers the chance to get higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education,” he said.
The president urged employers to offer more opportunities to those who are transitioning out of the U.S. armed forces.
“To every CEO in America, let me repeat: If you want somebody who’s going to get the job done, hire a veteran,” he said.
Obama acknowledged that pushing his administration’s agenda forward would be challenging and that there would be opposition on Capitol Hill to many of his proposals. He asked members of Congress to work with the White House to find common ground and ideas.
“My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol—to do what I believe is best for America,” he said. “If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you'll at least work with me where you do agree.”
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.
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