Flexible work, job protection, paid leave at heart of White House summit

June 23, 2014 - by: Tammy Binford 0 COMMENTS

by Tammy Binford

President Barack Obama is launching a new effort aimed at increasing protections, opportunities, and wages for workers to create what the White House envisions as a 21st century workplace.

The president, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Dr. Jill Biden are hosting the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23. The agenda calls for sessions focusing on hourly workers, compensation, the structure of the workplace, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, and nontraditional jobs, among other topics.

A website for the summit explains that the meeting is “to focus on creating a 21st century workplace that works for all Americans.” President Obama has lately focused on increasing the federal minimum wage and other measures to boost low-wage workers and the middle class—themes getting more attention at the summit.

A June 23 Washington Post article includes a list of proposals the president is expected to announce. The proposals that most affect employers are:

  • A memorandum directing federal agencies to implement workplace flexibility initiatives and a “right to request” flexible work policy;
  • A push to get Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act;
  • An extension of workplace protections, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), to all families, including same-sex couples;
  • Money for five states to study the feasibility of paid-leave laws;
  • A push to get more women in STEM jobs; and
  • Efforts to close the wage gap between women and men.

Impact on employers

It’s too soon to tell what President Obama’s latest proposals will mean for employers, but some of the issues—such as protections for pregnant workers—already have been at the forefront, according to Lauren Moak Russell, an attorney with Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP, in Wilmington, Delaware. She calls the proposals “very ambitious,” particularly in light of the conflict between Republicans and Democrats at the federal level.

“Certainly employers and employers’ counsel would support proposals intended to extend equality,” says Russell, who is an editor of Delaware Employment Law Letter. But she’s “wary about the added burden they might impose on employers right now.”

“Laws need to be enforced, but to the extent that enforcement prevents employers’ primary focus from resting with their business, it doesn’t benefit the economy and it doesn’t benefit workers,” Russell says.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) already has hinted at an expansion of protections for pregnant workers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Russell says. That expansion may bring enforcement of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act more in line with enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Russell calls that development worrisome because the burden imposed on employers under the ADA Amendments Act is significant. To assume that the short-term limitations of pregnancy should be subject to the same obligations as chronic conditions is problematic, she says.

Regarding paid leave, Russell says that while it’s important to provide leave for emergencies and to refresh workers, the good intent of any legislation might have negative implications. However, if a law includes exemptions for small employers and provides for limited requirements, it might not have too much of a negative effect.

Jonathan C. Sterling, an attorney with Carlton Fields Jorden Burt in Hartford, Connecticut, and an editor of Connecticut Employment Law Letter says that states have already ventured into many of the areas covered in President Obama’s proposals. In 2012, Connecticut became the first state to pass a paid sick leave law. The law applies to “services workers.” Also, the state version of the FMLA already applies to same-sex couples.

“I would expect more states to be active in legislating in these areas and not wait for the president,” Sterling says.

About Tammy Binford:
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.
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