WASHINGTON -- With the U.S. job market on more solid footing, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to advance a philosophy he’s increasingly embraced over the past year -- that the federal government can and should raise baseline standards inside the American workplace.
Whether it was paid leave, the minimum wage or gender pay equity, the president made his case to a skeptical, Republican-controlled Congress that Washington needs to establish rules governing how the economy works for everyday people, particularly when wages are stagnating despite broader job gains.
“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?” Obama said. “We need to set our sights higher than just making sure government doesn’t halt the progress we’re making. We need to do more than just do no harm.”
One of the clearest examples of that philosophy was the space he devoted in his speech to paid sick days and family leave, a priority that administration officials previewed in the days before the address. The president urged lawmakers -- in an all but futile effort, given uniform GOP opposition -- to pass legislation that would guarantee workers the ability to accrue paid sick days on the job.
Like the minimum wage raise Obama called for last year, a mandate that employers offer sick leave would largely benefit workers on the bottom rung of the U.S. economic ladder. An estimated 39 percent of private-sector workers, most of them in lower-wage industries like food and retail, are not guaranteed paid sick days.
“Today, we’re the only advanced country on earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” the president 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. It’s the right thing to do.”
The president’s paid leave push underscores a basic divide with the GOP House and Senate. Rather than place mandates on employers, the new Congress is pursuing legislation that would instead deregulate industries.
The president doesn’t have the power to unilaterally enact the largest domestic reforms he proposed, such as a hike of the capital gains tax on the wealthy. That means many of his proposals were declared non-starters before he even delivered them. But he once again promised to pursue more modest measures through executive action.
The president can extend maternity and paternity leave to federal workers through what amounts to an accounting trick, while also extending grants to states to pursue their own programs.
“He realizes Congress is never going to work with him,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. “It’s clear -- it’s absolutely clear -- so if things are going to get done, he has to do them by himself.
“I think he’s using most of the tools in his toolbox right now,” Eisenbrey added. “He doesn’t have all that much latitude, so they’re being fairly creative.”
The president once again used his annual address to press Congress on raising the minimum wage, a priority that Democrats first put forward nearly two years ago. Some states have since hiked their own minimum wages, including red states, such as Nebraska and South Dakota, while the president instituted a new minimum wage of $10.10 for workers under federal contracts.
“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,” the president said. “If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”
The president also chided Congress for failing to pass equal pay legislation, an allusion to the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would give more legal recourse to women who were unfairly paid less than their male counterparts. Republicans have so far blocked the bill in both chambers. While Democrats cheered Obama’s line, Republicans remained seated.
“This Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”
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