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Debra L. Ness, President

From the desk of ... Debra L. Ness

Eight Labor Days

September 5, 2016 | Workplace Fairness | Work and Family

Cross-posted from the Huffington Post.

Today is the eighth and final Labor Day the country will celebrate with Barack Obama as its president. As we pay tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our nation, it’s well worth taking a moment to appreciate this president’s deep and enduring commitment to equal opportunity for women in the workplace and the impact it has had.

In recent years, the Obama administration has used Labor Days - and many of the days in between - to advance the fair and family friendly workplace policies the country needs. In 2014, at a holiday Laborfest in Milwaukee, President Obama said: “Let’s make sure women get fair pay. Let’s make sure working moms and dads can get a day off if their child is sick or their parents are having a tough time. Let’s make sure nobody who is working full time is raising their family in poverty.”

Last year, he used the holiday to announce a requirement that federal contractors and subcontractors allow all employees who work on their federal contracts to earn paid sick time. When it takes effect next year, it will directly benefit an estimated 828,000 employees of federal contractors, including an estimated 437,000 employees who currently receive no paid sick days. In a historic move, the president also called for a national paid family and medical leave program that covers workers when they need longer term time off to care for new children, recover from serious illnesses or care for family members with serious health conditions.

In so many ways, large and small, President Obama has used the power of his office to level the playing field and improve women’s prospects in the workplace - and both the national dialogue and federal and state policies are in a different place now than when he took office due, in part, to his leadership. His administration had taken significant steps to make the federal and federal contracting workforces models for the country. He has lauded companies that put fair, worker-friendly policies in place. His administration has seeded progress with grants to states and cities that they are using to innovate and develop paid family and medical leave programs that will work for their communities. He has promoted equal pay, both by encouraging companies to take an “equal pay pledge” and by creating tools that will lead to more transparency in companies’ compensation practices. He has used the bully pulpit his office brings - including several State of the Union addresses - to educate the country about the harm caused by gender- and race-based discrimination, bringing these issues out of the shadows and into the national debate.

All of these actions have nurtured real progress. In recent years, advocates have won groundbreaking fair pay laws in California, New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere. We won paid family leave programs in Rhode Island and New York - joining the pioneer, California, which recently strengthened its trailblazing program and New Jersey. We won laws guaranteeing workers the right to earn paid sick days in California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Oregon, Vermont and nearly 30 cities. We won laws requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and to protect the rights of nursing mothers in several states, including some that are deeply “red.”

But these laws are still the exception rather than the rule in the states, and opponents continue to block meaningful progress at the federal level. Indeed, it is virtually certain that - despite record levels of congressional support - this year, Congress will not pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help close the persistent gap between women’s and men’s wages; the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which would establish a paid family and medical leave insurance program; the Healthy Families Act, which would set a paid sick days standard; or the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would help combat pregnancy discrimination. Because of baseless, knee-jerk, reflexive opposition, President Obama will not have the chance to sign any of these bills into law. We see much the same opposition in too many states.

That is a terrible shame and it is hurting all of us. Throughout his time in office, President Obama has explained, over and over again, that he supports fair and family friendly workplace policies not simply out of a commitment to doing what’s right, but also because he recognizes that families, communities, businesses and our economy will only reach their full potential when women’s work is truly valued.

He is right. The programs and policies he has been supporting - the same programs and policies the National Partnership has been pioneering throughout our 45-year history, along with a huge and growing number of allies from the labor, women’s, business, civil rights, children’s, senior, medical and other communities - form the foundation of an inclusive, thriving economy.

Labor Days will mean even more, and our country will be much better off, when all lawmakers at all levels recognize that too. This fall, it’s important that we all make our voices heard. We must work toward the Labor Days to come, to give workers and their families the public policies that will help create better economic security and opportunity for all.


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