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Obama Urges Congress To Make Paid Sick Leave Mandatory

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Leaders and thinkers in both major parties are starting a political bidding war. It's a competition to tackle inequality.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Democrats often label the problem income inequality.

INSKEEP: Republicans prefer to frame it as a lack of opportunity.

GREENE: Whatever they call it, key players on both sides seem to realize their ideas should somehow address one of the major economic trends of our time. They're offering up new proposals as well as repackaging their old ones.

INSKEEP: On this program in December, President Obama said an improving economy at last gave him a chance to tackle, quote, "long-term projects, including making sure everybody is benefiting from economic growth."

GREENE: And in next week's State of the Union speech, President Obama offers proposals including this. He wants to guarantee sick leave for workers who need it, up to seven paid days per year. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama outlined his leave proposal during a working lunch in Baltimore with a working mom, a school nurse and a small-business owner, three women with some insight into the challenges facing workers who don't enjoy paid sick leave.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And if they've got kids or they've got an ailing parent, juggling both doing right by their families and making a living, can be tough.

HORSLEY: The president's proposal is likely to face an uphill battle in the new Republican Congress, where lawmakers are wary of imposing new costs on business. Jack Mozloom of the National Federation of Independent Business said small employers in particular have a tough time when one of their workers is out sick.

JACK MOZLOOM: If their people are not at work cutting grass and cutting hair and turning wrenches, then they're not getting paid. And if they're not getting paid, they can't pay their employees.

HORSLEY: Even if his proposal doesn't get traction in Congress, Obama plans to campaign for more generous leave policies at the state and local level, much as he did last year in pushing for a higher minimum wage. Obama is also urging lawmakers to grant paid parental leave to federal workers for the first time.

In the meantime, he's allowing new parents who work for the federal government to borrow against their future sick leave. Advocates are applauding the president's moves as good for the economy as well as workers. Vicki Shabo is vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

VICKI SHABO: What businesses find is that workers are better able to take care of the family responsibilities they might have, come back to work, be more productive, be more engaged and less likely to drop out of the workforce.

HORSLEY: Voters have embraced paid leave requirements where the issue has appeared on ballots around the country. Shabo says whether they're Democrats or Republicans, workers know they get sick, and they need time off to be able to care for their families. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.