Hot Topic - White House Employment Agenda

As President Obama digs into his second term, it’s become clear that overhauling federal employment law is a top priority of this administration. From wages to discrimination and family friendly workplace policies, President Obama is working with the legislative branch and exercising his executive powers to enhance protections for workers around the country.

Minimum Wage

During his 2014 State of the Union address, the president emphasized the need to increase the minimum wage, which has fallen far short of inflation since it was instituted. Workers, economists and politicians agree that a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour is a reasonable, practical wage that would lift millions of families out of poverty. In February 2014, President Obama issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for workers employed by federal contractors to $10.10 per hour, effective January 2015, and tying the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index. The order also increased the “tipped minimum wage” to $4.90 per hour and linked it to rise with the regular minimum wage.

Overtime

In March 2014, President Obama directed the Department of Labor to revisit and update overtime regulations, particularly focusing on the overtime threshold and the breadth of some of the current exemptions. Currently the threshold is $455 per week, meaning that many workers who earn $24,000 per year may not be entitled to overtime. The “executive” and “administrative” exemptions are currently quite broad and permit employers to designate an employee as an “executive” while paying them poverty-level wages.

Discrimination

In June 2014, President Obama confirmed that he will sign an executive order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The president has advocated for the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to enshrine similar protections for employees throughout the United States. The bill was passed by the Senate but has not advanced through the House of Representatives.

In April 2014, President Obama issued an executive order protecting employees of federal contractors from retaliation for discussing their compensation. The ability to discuss compensation without fear of reprisal is very important for both discovering pay discrimination and exercising labor rights, including discussion of unionization of a workplace. The president also ordered the Department of Labor to craft regulations that would require federal contractors to gather and submit employee compensation data by gender and race. This trove of information would assist the Department of Labor in identifying and combating race- and gender-based discrimination.

Family Friendly Workplace

In June 2014, President Obama published an op-ed discussing the first White House Summit on Working Families and advocating for a family-friendly workplace revolution in America. The president ordered federal agencies to expand employee access to flexible work schedules and directed the Department of Labor to invest in childcare programs for people undergoing job training programs.

What’s Next?

The White House’s employee-friendly initiatives are a great start, but workers in this country need more. The major flaw in many of these programs is that they apply only to employees of federal contractors. The president needs to work with legislators to pass bills like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act , the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act, which would work to combat endemic misclassification of employees as independent contractors, a dangerous trend that robs workers of many workplace and employment protections while depriving federal and state governments of workers’ compensation, unemployment, Social Security, Medicare and payroll tax revenue, and the Arbitration Fairness Act, which would prohibit companies from forcing employees and consumers to give up their rights to go to court while permitting parties who wish to arbitrate their disputes to continue to do so.

State and city governments are working hard to improve worker protections, but piecemeal legislation will always leave some workers out in the cold. When employees are treated with respect and paid a livable wage, all of us benefit.