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White House makes paid sick leave mandatory for federal contractors (+video)

Federal contractors will now be required to give employees paid sick leave, under new rules passed by the Obama administration.

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President Obama speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 16, 2016.

Carolyn Kaster/ AP/ File

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The White House finalized new sick leave policies for federal contractors this week, as the Obama administration continues to chip away at employment policies that critics say are outdated for today's families.

Under the new rules, federal contractors will be required to grant employees up to one week per year of paid sick time. The White House’s interest in paid sick leave is just part of a broader societal shift on the way modern employers approach worker’s rights to combine job and family responsibilities.

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“This is really part of a broader conversation across America about what a 21st-century social compact should look like,” Thomas Perez, the secretary of Labor, told The New York Times.

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The new policies are set to go into effect in contracts begun in January 2017, and will directly affect 1.1 million workers, according to the Labor Department. Under the law, federal contractors will be required to grant at least one hour of sick leave per every 30 hours worked.

Labor policies have not kept up with changing societal norms, according to Mr. Perez, who said that the shift in so many American families from having one working parent to two working parents, or to single-parent households, was not addressed by previous labor policy. With both parents working, he says, it is often difficult to decide which parent should sacrifice a day’s pay, or in extreme cases, a job, to stay home with a sick child.

Critics of the White House’s sick leave policy, however, say that it could be a negative for small businesses, forcing them to avoid seeking federal contracts. The Healthy Families Act, which would provide up to a week of paid sick leave for workers nationwide, has stalled in Congress for several years. 

More than 20 cities and states have independently made paid sick time mandatory, however, in a trend towards expanded leave policies. At the federal level, President Obama signed a memorandum in 2015, creating paid leave policies for federal workers that would grant employees at least six weeks of paid leave, and six weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child.

Last year, the District of Columbia passed paid sick leave legislation that made sick leave available to all full and part time workers.

"The success of state-run programs, combined with Americans' intensifying focus on worker treatment, could pave the way for paid family leave to take the jump from a pretty but shallow campaign talking point to something more serious in 2016 and beyond," The Christian Science Monitor reported in October 2015.

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"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said no chance," Christopher Ruhm, a leading researcher on the impact of paid leave policies and a professor of economics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, told the Monitor at the time. "But I’ve gone from thinking it’s extremely unlikely to thinking there’s a reasonable chance, and there’s such a great support for it."

This report includes material from Reuters.