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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 will I.”
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.
As expected, 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 in poverty.”
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.
“The 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 opportunity.”
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 performance-related.
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 remarks—LGBT workers.
“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 said.
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 House.
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 Senate.
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 needs.”
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