In State of Union Speech, Obama Urges Minimum Wage Hike, Immigration Overhaul

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President Obama called on Congress to raise the minimum wage, combat discrimination against female workers, and pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul measure in his annual State of the Union address Feb. 12.

“Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can't find full-time employment,” the president told a joint session of Congress. “Corporate profits have rocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged.”

Obama pressed lawmakers to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, a $1.75 bump from the current minimum wage of $7.25. The proposed increase would be introduced in stages through 2015, according to a White House fact sheet.

“This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families,” the president said. “It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead.”

The proposed minimum wage is lower than the $9.50 an hour floor Obama advocated as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008.

In the State of the Union address, however, the president urged Congress to tie the minimum wage to the cost of living. Future increases should reflect rises in inflation, Obama said, “so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on.”

Labor leaders hailed the president for his call to raise the minimum wage.

“This would have an enormous impact on workers, many of whom are forced to string together 2-3 jobs to barely afford the necessities of life,” Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement.

Yet others warned that a spike in the mandated minimum wage would kill jobs, rather than create them.

“The President is entitled to his opinion but the facts are indisputable: Minimum wage hikes lead to job losses,” Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, said in a statement. “This proposal will only harm the people the President wants to help--especially teens, who have already endured more than four years of 20+ percent unemployment,” he added.

'Magnet' for New Jobs, Manufacturing

Obama told Congress his first priority is “making America a magnet for new jobs and manufacturing.”

The president announced the launch of three new manufacturing innovation hubs, where businesses will partner with the departments of Defense and Energy to create global centers of high-tech jobs.

Touting recent gains in factory jobs, the president noted that companies like Caterpillar, Ford, and Intel have shifted jobs from abroad to domestic facilities.

He also called on Congress to enact tax reform measures aimed at attracting more businesses to the United States. “The American people deserve … a tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that create jobs right here in America,” the president said.

Call for Paycheck Fairness Renewed

Urging lawmakers to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, Obama said the law is necessary to ensure that female workers “earn a living equal to their efforts.”

Reintroduced Jan. 23 by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the legislation would require employers to prove that any disparity in pay between men and women performing the same job was related to performance, rather than sex discrimination (31 HRR 68, 1/28/13).

The bill also would allow workers to seek compensatory and punitive damages in pay disparity cases--in addition to back pay--and amend the Fair Labor Standards Act by banning retaliation against those who share compensation information with co-workers.

The measure stalled in both the House and the Senate last year.

Immigration Overhaul

President Obama also said during his address that the time has come for Congress to pass a comprehensive bill that would overhaul the nation's immigration system.

“Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants,” Obama said. “Now is the time to get it done,” he said of a comprehensive immigration bill.

Obama last year also called for an overhaul of the nation's immigration system, but it never materialized. The difference this year is that comprehensive legislation already is in the works.

A bipartisan group of senators Jan. 28 released a framework for such a bill (31 HRR 89, 2/4/13), and the group continues to meet twice a week in order to work out the details. A similar group also is meeting in the House, although no comprehensive legislation or blueprint has come from that chamber.

In addition, the House and Senate Judiciary committees have held hearings to discuss the numerous issues surrounding an immigration overhaul.

Obama Jan. 29 released his own set of principles for a comprehensive bill (31 HRR 89, 2/4/13). While he appears to be taking a back seat in order to let Congress work out the details, the president did say he plans to step in with his own measure should nothing substantive come from the House and Senate talks.

During the State of the Union, Obama said the overhaul measure should “cut waiting periods and attract the highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.”

He also said he would strengthen border security, and said his administration has already made progress by “putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.”

In addition, Obama called for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. “Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship, a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally,” he said.

“In other words, we know what needs to be done,” Obama said. “And as we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. So let's get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away.”

By Chris Opfer and Laura D. Francis  


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