The fight for paid leave: Obama administration takes the lead

White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett used to make up excuses for leaving the conference room so she did not have to tell her colleagues that she had to pee when she was pregnant.

After her divorce, Jarrett was a single mom to one daughter, and felt the pressures single working mothers face, but she was one of the lucky ones, she says. Jarrett always worked for employers that provided paid family leave, or leave that provides paid time off to care for the employee themselves or their family members.

Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett opens up remarks at the White House Champions For Change event focused on working families. Photo credit: Hunter foote

Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett opens up remarks at the White House Champions For Change event focused on working families. Photo credit: Hunter foote

“I can tell you, as a working single mom, I can’t imagine what I would have done if I had not had paid sick time,” Jarrett said.

Now, Jarrett is on the front lines pushing policy and legislation for more paid leave across the nation on her Lead On Leave tour with Secretary Thomas Perez.

On April 16, 2015, The White House hosted its weekly event, Champions For Change. This week’s theme was on working families, and honored those “‘Champions For Change’ who support working families and help make change in their companies or communities,” according to the event site.

One of the Champions being honored was David Cleary, a physician in Providence, Rhode Island. Cleary become an advocate for the Rhode Island Temporary Caregiver Insurance law after he and his wife needed to care for their his three-year-old son, born with a rare brain malformation.

Because of the TCI Law in Rhode Island, Cleary said, he and his wife were able to spend their son’s final weeks without financial fear.

FMLA

The only national legislation for leave is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

According to the bill, “The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave.”

Eligible employees can receive 12 weeks of leave annually for a new child in the home, caring for a spouse, child, or parent, serious health conditions and if a family member is on “covered active duty” for the military.

Statistics About National Paid and Unpaid Leave

The push for paid leave comes from research released in 2012, that while some were covered by the FMLA, not all could take leave because they could not afford it.

According to the study, 46 percent of people who had an unmet need for leave attributed their need to the “inability to afford leave.” Additionally, the study reported that 35.6 percent of male employees and 64.4% of female employees needed to take leave but did not take it.

As for paid leave, the Department of Labor reports that 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez talks about #LeadOnLeave and other problems with paid leave at the White House Champions For Change event focused on working families. Photo credit: Hunter Foote

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez talks about #LeadOnLeave and other problems with paid leave at the White House Champions For Change event focused on working families. Photo credit: Hunter Foote

“That means that if a working parent or one of their children is sick, they are likely to have to make the impossible choice between protecting their paycheck and job security and caring for themselves and those they love,” Jarrett said at Champions For Change.

A Changing Workforce

President Obama, Jarrett and Perez attribute the need for paid leave to the changing workforce.

“We know that, for example, our workforce has evolved dramatically over the last few decades,” Jarrett said at Champions For Change. “Nearly half of our workforce is comprised of women. Today, in more than six out of ten households with children, every adult works. In 1970, it was only four in ten. Forty percent of working women are the sole or primary breadwinner for their family.”

Paid leave is a large issue for women, as new studies show that women are 17 percent more likely to leave the workplace than men are when it comes to secondary earners in the home, and 75 percent of women in the workforce will experience at least one pregnancy while employed.

However, Jarrett, POTUS, and Perez have been quick to point out that this is not just a women’s issue, but just generally a family issue.

“Today, more than 30 million of America’s working families have young children, fathers are increasingly shouldering childcare responsibilities, and every year roughly 40 million Americans provide unpaid care for elderly relatives and loved ones – including the spouses of wounded veterans,” The Department of Labor said in a release.

According to the Department of Labor, one major reason workers need time off is not just for children, but for their parents as well. The generation in the workplace now is part of the “Sandwich Generation,” where middle-class families are taking care of loved ones on both ends of the generation scale.

“Nearly half (47 percent) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older),” a PEW Research Center report stated. “And about one-in-seven middle-aged adults (15 percent) is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.

In the 2012 study, it said that only 9.2 percent of those whose need for leave was unmet had to do with a new child in the home. The majority, 49.7 percent, had to do with the worker’s own illness, followed closely by the parent’s, spouse’s or child’s health condition at 35.8 percent.

Companies That #LeadOnLeave

The event also featured Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who announced that his company not only would provide paid leave to their employees, but would also require its suppliers that have 50 or more employees give at least 15 days of paid leave a year to their employees.

Microsoft CEO introduces the President at the White House Champions For Change. Photo Credit: Hunter Foote

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella introduces the President at the White House Champions For Change. Photo Credit: Hunter Foote

“At Microsoft, we share our commitment to empower working people and their families. It’s simple for us,” Nadella said. “When people are healthy and working in an environment that values wellbeing and diversity, they do their best work. That’s why we long provided industry leading employee benefits including comprehensive health programs, childcare support, paid vacations, paid sick leave and more.”

States That #LeadOnLeave

California was the first state to enact state-wide legislature for paid leave in 2004, and has been the case study of paid leave legislature for the past decade. The California Paid Family Leave insurance program provides workers up to six weeks of paid leave to care for a sick child, spouse, parent, or registered domestic partner or a new child.

“In 2002, California became the first state in the nation to guarantee that workers can take time off to care for a family without losing their whole paycheck,” President Obama said. “Thirteen years later, only two states have done the same. Netsy’s (the instigator of California’s paid leave, Netsy Firestein) proved that it’s possible. California has grown, businesses are being created.”

New Jersey and Rhode Island are states that since have implemented paid leave laws in their own ways as well. The state of Washington passed legislation in 2007, but was never implemented.

Just this last week, Vermont made a “landmark move” and passed legislation in the House of Representatives “requiring employers to provide at least three days of paid sick leave to employees,” according to the Burlington Free Press.

POTUS Issues A Memorandum

In January, Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum which says that agencies must provide 240 hours of advanced sick leave and update their leave policies and ensure employees know their rights for unpaid leave.

President Obama adds his remarks at the end of the White House Champions For Change event focused on working families and paid leave. Photo credit: Hunter Foote

President Obama adds his remarks at the end of the White House Champions For Change event focused on working families and paid leave. Photo credit: Hunter Foote

“My memorandum of June 23, 2014 (Enhancing Workplace Flexibilities and Work-Life Programs), directs the heads of executive departments and agencies to more fully utilize workplace flexibilities and work-life programs to promote recruitment, retention, employee engagement, and workforce productivity,” the signed memorandum reads.

This memorandum is part of Obama’s push toward “an economy that works for everyone,” he said.

At Champions For Change, Obama pointed out that the United States is one of the few countries in the world without paid leave.

“We are still the only advanced country on Earth without paid leave, so when a baby arrives … or an aging parent gets sick, too often workers have to make gut-wrenching choices about whether they can be there when their families need them most,” Obama said.

Opposition To Paid Leave

The main sources to opposition to legislation are Republicans and those who are worried about paying for leave and how it would effect the economy.

In an article by the New Yorker, reporter Andy Borowitz attempted to put the opposition from Congress in perspective. In the article, he said, “President Obama’s proposal to give workers six weeks of paid leave is meeting strong opposition from a group of people who annually receive thirty-three weeks of paid leave.”

Economic Support For Paid Leave

The main thing that proponents of paid leave come back to is that it is not only good for families, but good for the economy too.

“As we studied this issue, paid time off is good for business,” Nadella said. “It leads to increased productivity, employee retention and lower healthcare costs. It’s also good for people in society. Paid time off supports healthier workers and families, all of which is incredibly important to me.”

Additionally, in the conclusion of the “Economics of Paid Leave” report made by the Council of Economic Advisors for June 2014, the main point of the research says that paid leave benefits the country with retention and productivity.

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