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So Long and Thanks for the Paid Sick Days

Amy Traub

He may have less than a year left in his administration and be faced with a Congress so implacable that even a Supreme Court nominee lauded by former Bush Administration officials can’t get a hearing,  but President Obama can still be a force for progressive change.

 Just ask the 437,000 Americans working for federal contractors who lose pay every time they need to stay home sick. Thanks to an executive order the President signed last fall, these contract workers stand to gain paid sick leave for the first time. To extend paid sick leave to all working people, Congress would need to act, by passing legislation like the Healthy Families Act. But acting on his own, the President can use his executive authority over $1.3 trillion in federal contracting. 

As I’ve noted before, President Obama’s action on paid sick days is in keeping with his previous steps to raise workplace standards for contract employees the same way he would like to see them raised for all working Americans if only Congress took action:

President Obama has used his executive authority to raise wages for federal contract workers; ban contractors from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity; ensure that contract employees who discuss their compensation are not retaliated against; and strengthen the screening process to ensure that companies that chronically violate federal workplace laws are no longer rewarded with federal contracts.

Demos research has quantified how the federal contracting system fuels inequality by funding low-wage jobs that lack critical benefits such as sick leave. Enabling people employed through federal contracts to accrue paid sick leave, combined with prior executive actions, is an important step toward reversing this process, rebuilding the country’s middle class and reaffirming the nation’s long-standing commitment to protecting workers working on behalf of America.

At the same time, by reducing the high cost of employee turnover, cutting the risk of contagious disease and raising the productivity associated with having healthy employees, the Executive Order and proposed rule will contribute to improved quality, economy, and efficiency in government procurement.

To make paid sick leave a reality for contract workers, the Department of Labor must now approve regulations implementing the order.  The National Partnership for Women and Families has developed a streamlined form for the public to urge the Department of Labor to finalize the rule and extend paid sick days to hundreds of thousands of working people. Submit comments here to urge the Department to act.

It may well fall to the next President to enact another key step in raising purchasing standards: an executive order ensuring that federal contracts go to companies that respect their employees’ right to band together and negotiate collectively for a fair return on their work.