By Chris Opfer
Jan. 29 — President Barack
Obama called on Congress to make 2014 “a year of action” during his State of
the Union address Jan. 28, encouraging lawmakers to pass a variety of
employment-related measures and asserting that he will take unilateral action
to spur job growth when necessary.
“[W]hat I offer tonight is a set of
concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class
and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” Obama said during
his more than one-hour speech. “Some require congressional action, and I'm
eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither
Among other proposals, the president urged Congress to raise
the minimum wage, extend emergency unemployment benefits, narrow the wage gap
between male and female workers and stimulate job growth through tax reform and
employee training efforts.
Obama announced that he would sign an executive order raising the minimum wage
for federal contractor employees to $10.10 an hour. The president said the
move, which would apply only to new federal contracts, was necessary “because
if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live
A number of Republican lawmakers took issue with Obama's
decision to push the move through via executive order and said he won't be able
to get many of his proposals accomplished without their help.
president must understand his power is limited by our Constitution, and the
authority he does have doesn't add up to much for those without opportunity in
this economy,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said following the address.
“The real answer for the president is to refocus his priorities and work with us
on the things that we can achieve together to create jobs and promote greater
Obama also urged Congress to pass a measure, currently
pending in both the House and Senate, to increase the federal minimum wage for
all workers. The legislation (H.R. 1010, S. 1737), introduced by Rep. George
Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), respectively, would bump the
federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 in three steps over several
years and then index it to inflation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
(D-Nev.) said earlier this week that he expects the Senate to vote on the bill
in early March.
The president noted that five states have passed laws
increasing their minimum wage in the year since he called on Congress to tick
up the federal wage floor in last year's State of the Union address. He also
said some businesses, including Costco, have decided on their own to pay
workers more per hour.
In a statement following the address, Service
Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said it's employers who
should be leading the charge to ramp up pay. “It should not fall only on the
president and Congress to make sure workers earn a decent wage,” Henry said.
“Our business leaders have a responsibility to help close the growing income
gap, especially in an era of record profits.”
Obama also said Congress
should continue to work to close the wage gap among male and female workers.
“You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make
77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” the president said. “That is wrong, and
in 2014, it's an embarrassment.” He also promoted various family-friendly
workplace measures, including paid time off to care for sick children.
“You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still
make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns,” the president said. “That is
wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment.”
Debra L. Ness, president of
the National Partnership for Women & Families, praised Obama for addressing
the issue, but said he can do more to promote pay equity.
The Senate is
expected to vote in April on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would address
perceived loopholes in the Equal Pay Act by allowing workers to share salary
information and requiring employers to show that any pay disparity is
In the meantime, Ness said the president should
issue an executive order protecting federal contractor workers who share
information about their pay and point out discrimination from being retaliated
against by their employers.
“Doing so would set an example for Congress
and help ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to perpetuate pay
discrimination,” Ness said. “We urge the president to take this important
action right away.”
Human Rights Campaign
President Chad Griffin, said one group was conspicuously absent from Obama's
“Not only was there no call for the House to pass
a federal law to protect LGBT workers nationwide, President Obama also
sidestepped his commitment to take action where Congress has left off, leaving
out an order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors,” Griffin
In November 2013, the Senate passed the Employment
Nondiscrimination Act (S. 815), which bans employment discrimination on the
basis of sexual orientation. The measure hasn't been taken up for a vote in the
The president has resisted calls for an executive order barring
such discrimination by federal contractors, saying that he prefers resolving
the issue by passing ENDA.
Obama also urged lawmakers to restore the
federal emergency unemployment compensation (EUC) program, which expired Jan.
1. A measure to extend the program—providing up to an additional 14 weeks of
unemployment benefits to jobless workers who had exhausted regular state
unemployment benefits—for at least three months recently stalled in the
Meanwhile, Obama said he will meet with a number of CEOs from
companies across the country in an effort to get them to pledge to help
long-term unemployed workers find work.
The president also floated a number of other
proposals aimed at stimulating the job market, including tax reforms,
investments in infrastructure and additional training opportunities.
Obama implored Congress to come together to overhaul tax laws in order to
lure businesses back to the U.S. and reward them for creating domestic jobs.
“Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled
with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here, and
reward companies that keep profits abroad,” the president said. “Let's flip
that equation. Let's work together to close those loopholes, end those
incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that
create jobs right here at home.”
In another effort to attract
manufacturing and technology employers to the States, Obama also echoed his
support for the development of manufacturing innovation hubs in which
businesses partner with the departments of Defense and Energy to create global
centers of high-tech jobs. The president announced the program, which has since
launched hubs in Raleigh, N.C., and Youngstown, Ohio, during last year's State
of the Union address.
Obama additionally said he has asked Vice
President Joe Biden to lead a sweeping reform of federal job training programs
in order to ensure that they are designed to give workers the skills they need
to fill jobs that are currently open.
“That means more on-the-job
training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward
trajectory for life,” the president said. “It means connecting companies to
community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific
To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Opfer in Washington
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at email@example.com
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