"Right now, you have parents who have to choose between losing income or staying home with a sick child," Obama told a crowd of 765 supporters, including many labor officials, during the annual Greater Boston Labor Council breakfast, sponsored by the AFL-CIO.
Under the executive order, workers on federal contracts would be eligible for paid leave if they are sick or caring for a sick relative. They will earn one hour of leave for every 30 hours worked, with a maximum of seven days a year, officials said. The new order won’t take effect until after Obama leaves office in early 2017.
With the campaign for his successor underway, the president drew a sharp contrast between his administration's policies and those of Republicans. The GOP believes the best way to stimulate the economy is to cut taxes and loosen regulation, Obama said.
Republicans think "just wait, look up in sky, and see prosperity come raining down on us on top of whatever high-rise is in New York City," he said. "That’s not how the economy works."
In particular, Obama mocked Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), a presidential hopeful whose support for anti-union laws in his state made him popular within the national GOP but angered labor leaders. Without mentioning him by name, the president ridiculed Walker for suggesting, in February, that "busting unions prepared him to fight ISIL" -- a reference to the Islamic State militant group.
During a campaign appearance at a diner in Rochester, N.H., Walker responded by saying that while Obama "stands with the big government union bosses, we stand with hard-working people."
Walker added that "the president and his allies fear us more than anybody else in the race because they know we don't just talk about it, we get it done. We fight, we win, we actually get results and we've done it without compromising our conservative principles."
The president’s Boston trip was intended to serve as a rallying point with organized labor heading into the 2016 elections. Obama and labor leaders butted heads this spring over the president's successful push to win additional authority from Congress to complete international trade deals.
But big labor has been buoyed by the White House and congressional Democrats' commitment to championing parental leave and sick leave laws, as popular support has grown for such measures in many parts of the country. An estimated 44 million private-sector workers -- about 40 percent of the workforce -- do not have access to paid sick leave, according to the White House.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and a host of labor leaders joined Obama on Air Force One for the quick trip to Boston. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who attended the speech, was among those who traveled home on the presidential jet.
Before heading home to Washington, Obama made an unannounced lunchtime stop at Union Oyster House, a historical landmark established in 1716, where he surprised patrons by ordering 10 clam chowders to go.
“We’ll eat them on Air Force One,” he told the bartender.
Despite a heavy push by the Obama administration, however, proposals for paid sick leave have languished in the GOP-controlled Congress, much like efforts to increase the minimum wage.
The United States is one of just a handful of countries that do not offer paid leave; congressional Republicans have introduced measures offering workplace flexibility and tax credits in some instances, but they have opposed mandating paid leave.
The push for paid leave has gained momentum across the country, although it tends to be in Democratic-leaning states and cities. The president highlighted a Massachusetts law, approved by voters in November, that provides employees with up to 40 hours of sick leave per year. That law went into effect in July.
During his remarks at the breakfast, Obama playfully noted that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, whose four-game suspension by the National Football League was overturned last week by a federal judge, had the strong backing of the players association.
"Even Brady's happy he's got a union," Obama said. "They had his back. You know if Brady needs a union, we definitely need unions."