Paid Leave Set for Political Boost in SOTU Tonight

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Obama on phone

Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

(WOMENSENEWS)–Tonight, President Barack Obama will try to catch up with the rest of the developed world by renewing his push for paid sick days and paid family leave for the millions of American workers who don’t have either.

The initiatives, long-advocated by women’s rights activists, are not expected to go anywhere fast in the GOP-dominated Congress but Ellen Bravo, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Family Values @ Work, sees a turning point.

"We have no illusion that it will pass in the next two years," Bravo said in a phone interview Tuesday. "But what we will see is growing support and growing pressures on those who block it."

As we wait for these initiatives to become a reality, Bravo added, activists should become emboldened. "It gives activists leverage to go to their elected officials in the city and state level and say ‘Of course we need national standards, but the way to get there is by you passing this now’."

Several states have their own family leave laws, though not all require the days to be paid. Only three states–California, New Jersey and Rhode Island–offer paid family and medical leave.

Bravo also predicts the paid leave issues will be in the mix of presidential politics in the 2016 campaigns. "Voters really care about these issues," she said. "Women in particular help determine elections and these issues are priorities for women."

As widely reported, Obama is taking a multi-pronged approach.

First he plans to sign a memorandum giving federal employees at least six weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child. Then, he will call on Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow millions of Americans to earn up to seven days per year of paid sick time. Finally he will announce programs to help cities and states provide their own paid leave to American workers.

In 1993, the United States passed the Family and Medical Leave Act under President Bill Clinton, which expanded access to unpaid leave for workers in companies with more than 50 employees. But its restrictions mean many workers either have no access to parental leave.

"It is fantastic that the president is proposing these initiatives and really putting attention on them," said Jessica Milli," senior researcher at the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. But Milli added that if any of the initiatives wind up passing in Congress they "could probably end up having some compromises with regards to who is actually covered in the legislation."

Milli said small businesses might be excluded by the argument that paid sick and parental leave would impose economic hardships. However "a lot of research has shown that the very people that need those policies are the ones working at the small businesses," said Milli.

Only 12 percent of American workers receive paid family leave, and 61 percent have paid sick leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The United States is the only high-income country in the world that does not mandate paid maternity leave. Out of 185 countries surveyed on their family leave policies by the United Nation’s International Labor Organization, only two did not offer paid maternity leave: the United States and Papua New Guinea.

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