It’s 2015 and we’re seeing few signs that Congress will pass meaningful legislation to address the plight of workers in America. When it comes to pro-worker policies, the legacy of the 114th Congress (not to be confused with the 113th, 112th, or 111th Congresses) seems poised to be one of bills left behind.
With an infamously gridlocked Congress, even majorly popular issues like raising worker wages have had trouble getting past the House floor. Rather than let sleeping dogs lie, Obama has responded to congressional inactivity by utilizing his executive authority where he can in order to advance workers’ rights.
This week, TCF released a report entitled The New Era of Executive Action: How President Obama Is Advancing a Progressive Agenda, which details 22 of the administration’s most significant executive actions. Below are some of the ways that President Obama has used “pen and phone” politics— a term describing the two simple tools needed to take executive action— to make progress for millions of American workers.
Setting An Example as the Nation’s Largest Employer
In 2008, President Obama campaigned on raising the federal minimum wage and has since pushed Congress to raise the hourly wage to $10.10 in both his 2014 and 2015 State of the Union speeches. He has also advocated for legislation that ensures paid family leave (the U.S. is among just three out of 185 countries that don’t have paid family leave laws) and that protects LGBT individuals from discrimination in the workplace. While none of these proposals seem likely to pass, the administration has still found ways to advance its fair workplace agenda.
The main tool at the president’s disposal is how he manages his government employees. The federal government employs almost 2.7 million people in its executive agencies and untold millions more in contract employees. In other words, policies set by the country’s biggest boss matter for a lot of people. Through executive actions, Obama has established a minimum hourly wage of $10.10 for new contractors, which will raise the wages of 200,000 people. He has also established new actions that departments can take against contractors to enforce existing labor laws.
When it comes to ensuring equality in the workplace, the administration has promoted employment for individuals with disabilities, undertaken a study of its gender pay gap, and prohibited federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers. The latter has the potential to protect 11 million more American workers from sexual orientation-based discrimination and up to 14 million additional workers based on gender identity.
Quality of the workplace environment has also improved under Obama. With little progress made on paid family leave legislation, the administration now guarantees six weeks of advanced paid leave for federal employees with a new child or those caring for a relative with a health condition. Federal agencies will also revisit and enhance their workplace flexibility policies, making it easier for employees to maintain a work-life balance.
These progressive policies are based on sound evidence that supports their need and their benefits. Women are still paid 78 cents to every dollar made by their male counterparts and individuals with disabilities are consistently employed at a much lower rate than average. Evidence has shown that better paid workers are happier and work harder and that paid family leave reduces employee turnover and brings more women into the labor force.
While these actions are not permanent fixes for the problems at hand and have yet to be adopted on the national scale, their very existence will build pressure for Congress, states, and local governments to address them. Moreover, many of the effects will be felt immediately by millions of workers in America.