Trump Calls for Paid Family Leave, Reining in Health Care Costs

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie February 6, 2019
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​Paid family leave, lower health care costs, trade policies that protect U.S. jobs and infrastructure investment that would create jobs were among the issues that President Donald Trump addressed last night during his second State of the Union speech.

"Many of us have campaigned on the same core promises: to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers; to rebuild and revitalize our nation's infrastructure; to reduce the price of health care and prescription drugs; to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern and secure; and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America's interests first," the president declared before a joint session of Congress.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said Trump highlighted issues "that matter to our members and our profession."

In a video response to the speech, Taylor called for government policies that close the skills gap; improve employment-based immigration; and help employers provide accessible, high-quality and lower-cost health care benefits.

Nationwide Paid Family Leave

Trump vowed to include money in his coming budget proposal to support nationwide paid family leave "so that every new parent has a chance to bond with their newborn child."

Trump called for the same thing in his first State of the Union address and said then he would guarantee this leave by amending the existing unemployment insurance that companies are required to carry. The proposal didn't move far in Congress.

U.S. parents get time off from work to spend with a newborn under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, but they often aren't paid while on leave. Some states require paid family leave, and companies are increasingly offering it to attract and keep workers. Thirty-five percent of employers offer paid maternity leave, and 29 percent offer paid paternal leave, according to SHRM.

Taylor said he was pleased that Trump "signaled that this was a dialogue he was engaged in," though he said employers will be curious to know "How do you pay for it? Who pays for it? What is the cost of it?"

Montez King, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, said he's not sure how smaller organizations, like his own, would be able to afford such leave.

"The larger companies, they can absorb it much more easily," King said. "As a smaller company … that's a tall order for us."  

Trade Policies

One priority that Trump called "paramount" is "reversing decades of calamitous trade policies."

"We are now making it clear to China that after years of targeting our industries and stealing our intellectual property, the theft of American jobs and wealth has come to an end," he said, noting that recently imposed tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese goods has led to the U.S. Treasury raking in "billions of dollars a month."

"We are now working on a new trade deal with China. But it must include real, structural change to end unfair trade practices, reduce our chronic trade deficit, and protect American jobs," he said.

Trump also referred to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, as a "historic blunder" and called for Congress to ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement—or USMCA—to replace NAFTA and "deliver for American workers."  

Doing so, he said, would "bring back our manufacturing jobs in greater numbers, expand American agriculture, protect intellectual property, and ensure that more cars are proudly stamped with four beautiful words, 'Made in the USA.' "

In addition to new policies on labor and environmental standards, the USMCA's visa provisions mirror those in NAFTA, which allow Canadian and Mexican nationals to work in the U.S. under TN visas, which are renewable every three years, indefinitely. About 100,000 TN visa holders are currently working in the United States in professions ranging from doctors and lawyers to teachers and engineers.

All three countries must ratify the USMCA. Congress likely won't consider the agreement until later this year.

The Skills Gap

One of the workplace issues that Trump has been working on, but did not address directly in last night's speech, is the so-called skills gap.

Demand is growing for middle-skilled workers—such as machinists, technicians and health care practitioners—yet companies are struggling to fill millions of these jobs because they say workers lack the skills for them.

SHRM research released this week found that 83 percent of HR professionals say they had difficulty recruiting suitable candidates in the past 12 months, particularly in the trades, middle-skilled positions and highly skilled STEM positions. For instance, carpentry, plumbing, welding and machining are the technical abilities most lacking in the workforce. Data analysis, science, engineering, medical and finance are other areas in short supply.

SHRM is part of a federal effort that's committed to funding nearly 4 million slots for apprenticeships, retraining workers and offering continuing education programs over the next five years. SHRM has committed to educate and prepare more than 127,000 HR professionals through the SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP certification programs.

Helping Ex-Inmates Become 'Productive'

Trump hinted at another remedy for the skills gap when he touted passage of the First Step Act that aims to reduce the number of people in the nation's prisons, and that he said "disproportionately harmed the African-American community." The legislation passed by Congress in December gives judges more discretion in sentencing offenders for nonviolent crimes and gives inmates credits for in-prison job training and education so they can earn early release.

Among Trump's guests in the House Tuesday night were former prisoners Alice Marie Johnson and Matthew Charles. Trump granted Johnson clemency and Charles became the first prisoner freed thanks to the First Step Act.

"The First Step Act gives nonviolent offenders the chance to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens," Trump said.

To help former inmates get jobs, SHRM has launched the "Getting Talent Back to Work" initiative, aimed at giving opportunities to qualified job applicants with a criminal record. In a YouTube video released Tuesday, Taylor said that nearly 700,000 people leave prison each year.

"These folks experience an unemployment rate five times the national average," he said in the video. "These women and men who seek a second chance at an honest life deserve the dignity of a stable job."

Immigration

Trump made little reference to proposals that might increase the number of visas allowing foreign workers to take jobs in the U.S., or that might simplify the process for getting those visas. He said only that "I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally."

A majority (87 percent) of HR respondents to the SHRM Employment-Based Immigration Survey said it was very important to recruit workers regardless of their national origin. Yet more than one-third said their businesses were challenged by an insufficient number of employment-based visas, such as H-1Bs, to recruit these workers. Additionally, one-third said the employment-based immigration process was lengthy and complex with unpredictable results.

Health Care

Lower health care and prescription drug costs will be among his priorities this year, Trump said, as well as ensuring health care for patients with pre-existing conditions.

"It is unacceptable that Americans pay vastly more than people in other countries for the exact same drugs, often made in the exact same place," he said. "I am asking the Congress to pass legislation that finally takes on the problem of global freeloading and delivers fairness and price transparency for American patients. We should also require drug companies, insurance companies and hospitals to disclose real prices to foster competition and bring costs down."

The president also announced an effort to end HIV transmissions in the U.S. by 2030, along with battling the opioid epidemic, which has cost U.S. businesses billions in health care costs and lost employee productivity.

More Business, More Jobs

The president, as he did last year, made an appeal for a robust national infrastructure program—such as federal money to repair roads and bridges—which would bring business, jobs and an economic boost to the rural U.S., in particular.

In last year's speech, Trump called for a $1.5 trillion infrastructure investment, but the plan later released by the White House offered only $200 billion in direct federal spending, relying heavily on state spending and private capital. It failed to gain momentum in Congress.

SHRM Online editors Stephen Miller and Allen Smith contributed to this article.

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