fb-pixel Skip to main content

Obama targets sick time in Boston visit

Order Monday will require US contractors to offer leave

President Obama spoke during the AFL-CIO Labor Day breakfast in Boston. Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

With Boston as a backdrop and the state’s new earned sick time law as a template, President Obama on Monday announced an executive order requiring federal contractors to offer their employees up to seven paid sick days a year, a move that the White House said could benefit more than 300,000 workers.

The president announced the move at the annual Labor Day breakfast hosted by the Greater Boston Labor Council.

‘‘Right now you have parents who have to choose between losing income or staying home with a sick child,’’ Obama told a crowd of 765 supporters, including many labor union officials.


Aides said he chose Massachusetts in recognition of the sick leave policy approved by ballot initiative last fall and of Boston’s recent decision to provide non-union city employees with six weeks of paid parental leave.

“It’s incredibly positive news for workers and families across the country and we are honored the president will be announcing this initiative here in Massachusetts, where we have had some major victories recently in raising standards for workers,” said Steve Tolman, president of the state AFL-CIO.

The order represents the president’s latest effort to nudge his policies forward by using measures that do not require approval by the gridlocked Congress.

Business groups said Obama’s order would make it harder for small businesses to retain federal contractors and could hinder economic growth.

‘‘Once again President Obama is using the federal procurement system to do something it was never been designed to do: usurp the legislative authority of Congress to determine appropriate workplace policies,’’ said Randy Johnson, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In his State Of the Union address last January, the president asked Congress to “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.”


‘‘We are the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,’’ Obama also said. ‘‘And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.’’

While he continues to call for such legislation, Obama intends to create the more limited policy by executive order, which gives the president power to create rules for the executive branch with the force of law. He used the same approach last summer, issuing an order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity. He also raised the minimum wage for workers on federal contracts while calling for Congress to do the same nationally.

Administration aides said that some 44 million American workers don’t have access to a single sick day and that the United States is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t have a paid leave policy.

“We live in a ‘Modern Family’ world, but our leave laws are stuck in the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ era,’’ said US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez in a conference call with reporters to preview the president’s Boston visit.

While some question the cost of paid time off for employers, Perez argued that, to be competitive globally, even conservative-leaning governments around the world consider leave necessary for their workers.

“The United States is the only country where the issue of a paid family leave has become a partisan issue,” Perez said. “Everyone else in the world has recognized how common sense this is.”


The Family and Medical Leave Act ensures workers can take unpaid time off, but many find it impossible to take leave without pay, and the law still doesn’t cover newer employees and smaller companies, according to a Department of Labor report released Monday, called “The Cost of Doing Nothing.”

Some business groups are dubious about mandatory leave policies, saying they inevitably inflate costs. Not only must employers pay workers who aren’t there, but they must pay other workers to do the jobs in their absence.

“The president and these Democrats imagine that every company is Google and Apple and Exxon Mobil and they have giant pools of workers they can shuffle around to accommodate workers who aren’t there. It’s just not true,” said Jack Mozloom, national media director for the National Federation of Independent Business, a coalition that represents only a few government contractors but is concerned about measures being applied to all companies. “Half the economy is a small business, and many of them can’t absorb it.”

Cecilia Muñoz, White House domestic policy council director, said the executive order would benefit both full-time and part-time workers on new contracts starting in 2017. Employees would earn one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours they work, up to 56 a year, she said.

While acknowledging skepticism about the potential costs to contractors and boomerang costs to taxpayers, Obama aides argued that there will be no cost at all. Other states that have enacted such laws have found businesses uncovered savings and efficiency as a result of the increased productivity and workplace loyalty they build, they said.


“We’ve determined this is not going to increase federal spending and that actually the benefits to businesses will more than offset the costs,” said Muñoz.

She said the issue is about caring for children, as well as relatives and employees themselves.

Nearly one in four working mothers returns to work within two weeks of childbirth – “which is not just tough on these kids and moms, it’s pretty tough on our economy as well,” she said. “Women with family leave are more likely to be employed after leave and to have higher earnings.”

Massachusetts law changed July 1 after a ballot question last November won support from a majority of voters. Now, companies with 11 or more employees must offer paid sick time to all workers, both full time and part time. Employees earn one hour of sick time for every 30 hours they work, and can earn up to 40 hours a year.

In Boston, Obama was flanked by prominent Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a giant banner reading ‘‘Workers and Community’’ in red, white and blue. Labor leaders Randi Weingarten and Mary Kay Henry joined Obama for the flight on Air Force One. In the corridors of the hotel hosting the breakfast, boxes of campaign signs could be spotted bearing the name of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who opposes the trade deals.


Wire services contributed to this report. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.