President Barack Obama Thursday pushed for programs that would help states develop paid leave programs for childbirth and adoption, as well as fund Labor Department feasibility studies on paid leave.

The president Thursday signed a memorandum, taking executive action to ensure that federal employees have access to at least six days (240 hours) of advanced paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for sick family members.

In addition, Obama will urge Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, legislation that would allow the accrual of up to seven days a year of paid sick time, said senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett.

But the Healthy Families Act does not provide for pre-emption from state and municipal leave laws, which could create an administrative nightmare for employers, says Katharine Parker, co-head of Proskauer’s employment law counseling and training group.

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“Most large employers do provide sick leave and some employers provide more generous sick leave than what is being proposed,” she says. “It’s the administration [of leave laws] that is creating issues. Each jurisdiction that has passed a sick leave law so far has passed its own unique version. Employers have to pick through all of the nuances of these various laws to try to create as uniform a policy as possible, because most multistate employers want to provide uniform benefits across locations. … Sick leave laws are a nightmare administratively.”

While paid sick time is good from an employee’s standpoint, “the devil will be in the details,” cautions Carol Sladek, partner and work-life consulting lead at Aon Hewitt. “The good thing is, it does ensure an employee has access to sick time. The bad thing is, you’d be mandating something the employer may or may not be providing in a different way.”

For example, she says, historically many employers have offered a set number of vacation days and another set of sick days. Recently, many employers have been combining the time into a paid time-off bank. More than half (58%) of organizations now offer PTO plans, up from 47% in 2010, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management. Employers will usually also have a short-term disability leave that follows alongside either one of those.

But some states – California, for example – mandate a certain number of sick days. “That means that an employer can’t have their short-term disability policy because that policy doesn’t guarantee you a certain number of days,” says Sladek.

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If the legislation passes, Sladek hopes that PTO banks will be counted toward legislated requirements.

“I’d hate to see employers uncouple the sick and vacation days [because] here is a cost savings from the employer’s point of view,” she says.

Obama’s proposal adds to the recent trend in the private sector, Sladek says, of “loosening the reins” in how employees can use their sick time. She notes more than half of employers allow the use of sick time to care for an ill family member.

Parker advises employers to carefully monitor state and local developments because there are many proposed leave bills in the works.

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