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Over 40 million American workers don't have paid sick leave. Obama has a plan to change that

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  1. On Thursday, President Obama will announce new initiatives aimed at improving US workers' access to paid sick leave.
  2. As part of the initiative, he'll ask Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to accrue up to seven days of sick leave.
  3. He'll sign a memorandum directing agencies to grant federal employees six weeks of paid sick leave leave for new children or to care for ill family members. He'll also propose that Congress give its workers six weeks of administrative leave for new children.
  4. The proposals will also encourage states to set up family and medical leave programs.

In a blog post on LinkedIn, White House Advisor Valerie Jarrett outlined the White House's new paid leave policies, saying Obama will propose the Healthy Families Act, which would allow workers to earn up to seven days of sick leave in a year, which they could use on either themselves or to care for a family member. Workers could also use it on preventive care. That bill isn't new — it has been introduced in every session of Congress since 2004.

Meanwhile, the administration is also encouraging states to create paid family and medical leave programs. The White House will in its fiscal year 2016 budget propose $2.2 billion to help states create their own paid leave initiatives. That funding would cover "administrative costs and roughly half of the cost of benefits," the White House wrote in a fact sheet on the sick leave initiatives, for up to five states for three years. In addition, the Department of Labor would also spend $1 million of its current funding to conduct studies to help states and municipalities implement their own paid leave laws.

Leave for federal workers

The president can't himself grant paid leave to all workers in the US, but he can grant it to federal workers — he will sign a memorandum on Thursday to give six weeks of family leave allowing federal workers to care for new children or sick family members. He's also proposing that Congress do the same for its workers.

The White House argues that paid leave laws haven't kept pace with the changing US workforce, which includes more women (and more single parents) than in prior decades. The White House also characterized the steps as a way of boosting productivity and keeping worker turnover low.

The current paid leave situation

Currently, no federal law mandates paid sick leave for US workers. Instead, employees can use FMLA, which allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a worker's or an immediate family member's illness.

But a few states and municipalities have passed sick leave laws. Workers in at least 18 cities get sick leave right now, according to a Monday memo from law firm Littler Mendelson. In addition, California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts all have passed some form of paid sick leave.

As of March 2014, 65 percent of US workers had paid sick leave. That includes 78 percent of all full-time workers and 25 percent of part-time workers, according to the Department of Labor.

At the moment only three states — California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — offer some form of paid family and medical leave, according to the White House. The feasibility studies and $2.2 billion in new spending are aimed at getting more states to create such programs.

The US is unique among nations in not offering paid leave to workers for illness or to care for family members. As of 2013, the US was one of only eight countries (and the only high-income country) that offered no paid maternity leave, according to the New York Times. And a 2010 book that studied 190 nations' laws found that 163 guarantee paid sick leave — the US, of course, was not one of them.

A boost for working parents, especially women

The White House has been framing many of its recent economic proposals as benefiting women, and this is another that fits that mold. In particular, the data shows, paid leave would benefit women who are low-income and who work part-time.

An October report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to take care of their sick children. Fully 39 percent of moms said it was usually their responsibility to take care of a sick child, compared to 3 percent of dads.

Kaiser sick leave

And it's the poorest moms who have the fewest benefits. Kaiser found that only 36 percent of moms below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (for a family of three, 200 percent is around $39,000) had paid sick leave, compared to 71 percent of women at or above that poverty level.

Paid family leave 2 Kaiser

And the share of mothers and fathers alike who don't have a partner to help them care for children is also on the rise. According to figures from the Pew Research Center, single moms were the sole breadwinners in 25 percent of all households with children under 18 as of 2013. The number of single dads is also on the rise — 8 percent of households with children under 18 were headed by single dads as of 2011, compared to 1 percent as of 1960.