Obama Signs Executive Order On Paid Sick Days

Federal contractors will have to offer employees up to seven days of leave per year.
Jose Luis Gonzalez / Reuters

President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Labor Day requiring that federal contractors provide their employees with paid sick leave, the latest in a string of executive actions aimed at raising the bar in the U.S. workplace.

According to the White House, the order will give roughly 300,000 workers under federal contracts up to seven paid sick days per year. Workers will earn one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked. The rules will start with new federal contracts signed starting in 2017.

"Many parents are forced to choose between taking an unpaid day off work -- losing much needed income and potentially threatening their jobs -- and sending a sick child who should be home in bed to school," the White House said in a statement.

Although most U.S. workers do receive paid sick days through their jobs, roughly 39 percent of private-sector workers do not, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The workers who don't have paid sick leave are disproportionately employed in low-wage industries like restaurants and retailers.

The White House has named expanding paid leave as one of its top priorities. After the president highlighted the issue in his State of the Union address in January, The Huffington Post pointed out that if the president wanted to bring paid leave to more workers, the easiest way to do so would be to issue an executive order like the one

signed Monday. Last month, The New York Times reported that a draft of an executive order related to sick leave was circulating at the Labor Department.

The executive branch has a long history of using its contracting power to influence labor policy in the private sector, stretching back at least to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Obama administration has grown aggressive with the tactic over the past two years. It issued an executive order setting a minimum wage of $10.10 under federal contracts, and another that effectively strips federal contracts from firms found to have committed wage theft.

In announcing the executive order, the White House also called on lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass legislation guaranteeing sick days for workers. Unlike most developed nations, the U.S. does not have a law requiring businesses to offer employees paid sick leave. Democrats have sponsored sick-leave legislation but it has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Family Values @ Work, a leading advocacy group on the issue, praised the White House for the executive order. "Such a move is precisely the government’s role: to create model standards for the rest of the country to follow and to make sure taxpayer dollars are used wisely," said Ellen Bravo, the group's director.

The National Federation of Independent Business, a lobby for small businesses, wasn't as keen on the announcement. “Mandatory paid leave is a great benefit for workers whose employers offer it," Jack Mozloom, the group's director, said in a statement. "For workers whose employers can’t absorb the cost, it’s an arbitrary expense that will ultimately result in shorter hours, lower pay or disappearing jobs.”

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