Capitol Alert

Looking to California, Obama calls for expanded paid leave

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.
President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

President Barack Obama on Tuesday renewed his resolve to push for paid leave policies, calling on Congress to adopt legislation that has roots in California.

The president last week implored federal lawmakers as well as state and local officials to adopt legislation granting millions of workers up to seven days of paid sick leave each year.

Obama signed a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to provide employees with up to six weeks of paid leave for parents with a new child. He also called on the Republican-led Congress to pass legislation giving federal employees another six weeks of compensated parental leave.

“Today, we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers,” Obama said in his State of the Union address. “And that forces too many parents to make the gut-wrenching choice between a paycheck and a sick kid at home.”

Obama said that since paid sick leave proposals won where they were on the ballot in November, he wants a vote in Washington.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he said.

California became only the second state in the nation to require paid sick days when Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed what he described as “modest” legislation. It gave workers three paid sick days a year and will apply to 6.5 million people who are not compensated when they stay home.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, tweeted her excitement about the subject going national ahead of Obama’s speech. Gonzalez described paid sick leave as a “commonsense, pro-family policy whose time should’ve come long ago.”

“As a working mom, being able to take a day off to care for my children when they’re sick is one of the most important benefits I’ve ever had at work,” she said Tuesday. Gonzalez recently traveled to Massachusetts to campaign for a successful ballot measure giving paid sick leave to 1 million people.

“I’m ready to help the president accomplish just that in any way possible,” she added.

Also wading into the debate was former California first lady Maria Shriver, who returned to the Capitol last year to deliver a report on women and poverty. She took to the social networking service Tuesday, tweeting “Let's get cracking ##paidfamilyleave.”

“CA leads the way!” responded Patrick W. Henning Jr., the director of the state’s Employment Development Department.

The Obama administration estimates 43 million private-sector workers go without paid sick leave. The Healthy Families Act, by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, would grant workers seven days of paid leave to care for themselves, family or seek preventative care.

Getting traction for a national law could prove difficult. California lawmakers tried for nearly a decade to push similar legislation after San Francisco became the nation’s first locality to provide a sick leave guarantee. Until last year, each state measure died after heavy lobbying by businesses amid a sluggish economy.

California’s family leave goes back more than a decade. In 2002, then-Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed country’s first comprehensive family leave program that provided roughly 13 million of the state’s 16 million workers with up to six weeks of partially funded leave. An original version would have provided 12 weeks, but businesses derided the bill as one of the legislative session’s worst offerings.

The law is paid for by an employee payroll tax and permits workers to use the time off to care for a new child or ailing relative. “I don't want Californians to choose between being good parents and good employees,” Davis said at the time.

In his speech, Obama said he would continue to advance economic policies he believes are crucial to improving the lives of working families. “Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works,” he said.

“And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago

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