POLITICS
01/15/2015 05:33 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2015

So Obama Wants To Give More Workers Paid Leave. Here's How He Can Do It Without Congress.

WASHINGTON -- On Wednesday, the White House began making its case for more paid leave in the American workplace. With the Republican-controlled Congress unlikely to pass legislation on the issue anytime soon, President Barack Obama has decided to take some action on his own, offering at least six weeks of paid leave to federal workers who have a new child.

But there's something else the president can do without the cooperation of Congress if he wants to see more workers receive paid sick days and maternity and paternity leave: give preference in federal contracting to companies that offer these benefits to their employees.

There's a long history of presidents setting workplace standards through the federal contracting process, stretching back at least as far as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who outlawed racial discrimination among defense contractors and later all government contractors. The power of such orders is inherently limited -- rather than applying to all companies, they only pertain to firms doing business with the federal government -- but they can send a strong message to the entire private sector about how the White House feels workers should be treated.

Obama himself hasn't been shy about wielding the federal government's purchasing power to set standards in the workplace. A year ago, as Democrats' minimum wage proposal languished on Capitol Hill, the president announced during his State of the Union address that he would be setting a $10.10 minimum wage for all workers employed under federal contracts. The number $10.10 was no accident -- it's the same wage floor congressional Democrats have been pushing, unsuccessfully, for the wider economy. Obama's move was a clear response to low-wage contract workers in Washington who, like fast-food workers around the country, had been taking part in periodic strikes.

Last summer, the president went a step further, issuing an executive order that would require contractors to self-report labor law violations stretching back three years. The purpose of the order is to make sure that firms with a track record of committing wage theft don't continue to enjoy federal contracts, as both the Government Accountability Office and Senate Democrats found they had been.

And as Congress declined once again to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the president in July 2014 issued an executive order to ban workplace discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees working under federal contracts.

Amy Traub, policy analyst at the progressive think tank Demos, said the president could use a similar stroke of the pen to encourage more paid leave. Currently, nearly 40 percent of workers in the private sector enjoy no guarantee of paid sick days, and those without it tend to work in lower-wage jobs.

"The next logical step is a set of government purchasing standards that would favor companies guaranteeing paid leave for sickness and caregiving, among other basic benefits," Traub said.

Writing on LinkedIn on Wednesday, White House adviser Valerie Jarrett laid out a number of the administration's new strategies for expanding leave: guaranteeing it for federal employees, offering grants to states to explore establishing their own programs and encouraging Congress to pass a paid leave bill that Democrats have proposed. But using contracting leverage to expand paid leave doesn't appear to be in the White House's playbook yet.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez has been stumping loudly for paid leave since late last year. Asked Thursday about using contracts to advance that goal, Perez told HuffPost that for now, the White House and Labor Department are focused on pressuring Congress and making the case to states that they should pass their own paid leave laws, just as states have done recently to raise the minimum wage.

"We lead on a lot of things across the world. Leave is not one of them," said Perez, who makes a point of noting that, unlike the U.S., other developed nations already have paid leave laws. "Obviously, Congress has to act, and the president is going to challenge Congress to act."

As for what more the administration can do on its own, Perez said, "We're figuring out what authorities we have and we're exercising them."

Some members of Congress have already been pushing the White House to exercise more of its influence over federal contractors. Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have been campaigning for a "model employer" executive order, which would give preference to employers offering high wages and good benefits, as well as guarantee collective bargaining rights for workers. Demos analyzed the potential impacts of such an order, finding that it would impact eight million workers in low-wage jobs, most of them women.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chair of the progressive caucus, told HuffPost after November's midterm elections that the new Republican Congress gave the president all the more reason to implement such an order.

"The president is in a pivotal position to go assertively with executive orders to create a political balance and an economic balance," Grijalva said. "I'm one member that urges them to use that as a balancing tool and a leadership tool in these next two years."

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