POLITICS
09/29/2016 12:47 pm ET

Obama Just Guaranteed Sick Days For More Than A Million Workers

A new rule released Thursday will assure that workers under federal contracts can get a week of paid sick leave each year.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

President Barack Obama has often said he’ll use the power of the pen to thwart a gridlocked Congress. On Thursday, he used it to advance one of his favorite agendas: paid sick days.

Making good on an earlier executive order, the Labor Department published a final rule Thursday that will guarantee at least some paid sick leave for workers employed under federal contracts. The rule is the latest in a string of new regulations aimed at improving working standards for those on the bottom rungs of the economy.

Under the rule, companies that have contracts with the federal government starting in 2017 must allow workers on those contracts to accrue up to seven sick days per year. Workers get one hour of paid leave for every 30 they work, capped at 56 hours annually. The workers must be notified each pay period of how much paid leave they have banked, and they must be allowed to roll their time over into a new year.

Workers can use that time to care for themselves or a loved one, not just in the event of physical sickness or injury, but also mental illness, domestic abuse and other situations.

A lot of workers already have paid leave through their jobs, but many still do not. Just over a third of private-sector workers don’t get any paid sick days at all, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Naturally, these workers are disproportionately employed in low-wage service jobs, where skimpy benefits tend to accompany skimpy pay. Access to sick days has improved for those workers recently, but it still lags far behind that of higher earners.

Obama’s executive order probably won’t change things for, say, a well-paid defense contractor, who’s probably already got paid sick leave. But it could make a big difference for someone mopping floors or serving burgers inside a federal building.

For workers like that, getting sick ― or having a child get sick ― often means either working through illness or having to sacrifice a day’s pay in order to stay home.

Since some employers still don’t voluntarily offer paid leave to all workers, the Obama administration and many state and local governments have decided to start making them. Mandates like the one implemented by the White House have become increasingly popular, with proponents saying they are the only way to assure vulnerable workers get the same protections as their well-paid counterparts.

Business lobbies, unsurprisingly, have tried their best to beat back these campaigns, saying firms will cut back workers’ hours if they’re forced to provide sick leave. Republicans have carried their argument for them in Washington, criticizing the White House for placing new mandates on contractors. (Obama also signed an executive order raising the minimum wage under federal contracts to $10.10.)

But there is little the GOP can do to stop such an order, short of winning the White House and reversing Obama’s.

There is a long history of presidents using federal contracting power to improve working conditions, stretching back to at least the New Deal. Rules like the one released Thursday are inherently limited, since they only touch on federal contractors as opposed to all private-sector employers. In this case, the administration estimates the sick days mandate will impact 1.15 million workers. Regardless, it sends a message to the private sector at large about how the White House thinks employers should be treating their workers.

The sick days rule wasn’t the only executive action that Obama put to bed on Thursday. The White House also announced that it was releasing a final rule under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which will ramp up reporting requirements for large companies.

Employers with at least 100 workers will now have to provide pay data to the government broken down by race and gender. Not only could that data help the government enforce discrimination laws, the White House says, it could also prompt employers to take a closer look at their pay practices and help close any racial or gender pay gaps.

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