President Barack Obama surprised lunchtime diners at a Baltimore cafe Thursday with an unannounced stop to promote a proposal to guarantee paid sick leave for millions more American workers.
After lunch at Charmington's in Remington, the president said families should not have to choose between their health and a paycheck.
In a launch that recalled his campaign last year to raise the minimum wage, he signed an order Thursday to give six weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave to federal employees, and called on Congress to pass a law that would guarantee seven days of paid sick leave for workers at businesses with at least 15 employees.
He also offered federal money to states and cities to study implementing their own policies around family and sick leave.
"We're going to go beat the drum across cities and states to encourage not only that these laws are adopted nationally, but also that employers start adopting these policies as well," he said.
As head of the executive branch, Obama can set policy for the federal workforce and contractors. But laws to force private employers to give their workers paid leave would require the approval of Congress, now controlled by Republicans, who oppose the idea of imposing more costly requirements on businesses.
The president's approach to paid leave draws heavily on his experience over the past year of talking up the minimum wage.
Obama rolled out that proposal in the 2014 State of the Union address, in which he asked Congress to raise workers' base pay from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour. He signed an executive order raising the wage for people working on federal service contracts and set off on a speaking tour to promote the idea for other workers.
A year later, Congress has yet to increase the wage. But the idea has gained momentum, and 17 states and the District of Columbia have taken action on their own.
One Obama aide called that momentum "heartening," and the president's team is embracing the strategy as one of the best tools at his disposal.
The president said Thursday that policies such as providing sick leave ultimately pay off for businesses, because they lead to more productive and more loyal workers and are profitable in the long run.
"When they make that investment in their employees, there's a dividend," Obama told reporters.
House Republicans are offering an alternative that would relax labor laws that require businesses to give overtime pay for overtime work, rather than, say, compensatory time off. Backers of the bill say working parents want the flexibility to take time off instead of money, providing paid sick time they need without imposing new rules on employers.
Americans already have "great freedom" when it comes to work, said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The Tennessee Republican said workers have latitude to choose a career and negotiate for the benefits that matter most to them.
"One more government mandate, however well-intentioned, will only reduce those freedoms, making it harder for employees to find jobs, negotiate for the things they need and open and run businesses," he said.
"Washington should do what it can to encourage employers to offer paid sick leave — not impose a big new mandate that will cost employers $11.4 billion over five years and make it harder for them to hire new employees."
The White House is appealing to a larger audience than congressional Republicans. Obama's economic team argues that family-friendly policies are good for business because they reduce worker turnover, encourage higher productivity and boost investors' perceptions of the value of a firm.
The White House cites several studies to support its argument, including an analysis of more than 700 firms that found that companies with work-life balance policies saw higher productivity.
A survey of employers in New York found that flexible leave policies helped businesses' bottom lines by reducing worker turnover, according to Betsey Stevenson, an economic adviser to the president. Family-friendly policies have even been shown to boost corporate profits, she said.
Mary Eschelbach Hansen, an economist at American University, said one reason might be that if workers know they can schedule paid leave to care for themselves or for family, it reduces distraction while they are on the job.
Studies of the unpaid leave provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 show that when employees take time off to care for a sick family member, she said, it speeds the relative's recovery time.
"These types of benefits could pay for themselves through increased productivity and lower wages," said Hansen. "The focus of the White House announcements today is clearly on the benefits to firms through increased productivity."
Daraius Irani, chief economist the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, said many working families would benefit from Obama's proposals, but they could end up being a burden to many businesses in Maryland.
About 98 percent of Maryland firms have fewer than 500 workers, Irani said, and most have fewer than 20. If small businesses have to pay for time an employee can't work, he said, it could be enough to tip the scales for some just getting by.
Irani said the proposals are probably workable in industries that face worker shortages, such as information technology. It's the restaurants and retailers that might not be able to accommodate paid leave.
"There has to be some balancing act to make sure firms can survive," he said. "When we increase the minimum wage, and then we mandate sick and family leave, it feels like we're piling on."
Obama dined at Charmington's with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and three other women. The cafe gives its employees paid leave when they're sick, according to one of the co-owners, and the business runs better because of it.
No one wants to come to a restaurant with sick employees, Adrienne Kinsey said.
"We can provide a better cafe and a better work environment if people can take off when they're sick," she said. "It's better for employees and customers, too."
Mary Stein, another of Obama's lunch partners, knows the challenges for both employers and employees firsthand.
As a school nurse in Howard County she sees the problems caused when a parent can't come up to pick up a sick kid. But as the owner, with her husband, of a wine store in Columbia, she's had to be creative to accommodate her employees when they fall ill.
Stein said she is liberal in granting time off, and works with them to figure out ways to make up the hours and wages.
She has campaigned for a sick leave policy in Maryland and thinks almost every business can do more to make life easier for its staff.
"You have to look at what people can tolerate, but we can all tolerate something," she said. If Obama's vision for sick leave became law, Stein said, she'd figure out how to make it work.
"We would definitely find a way," she said.
After lunch, Obama crossed Howard Street to greet well-wishers. One woman clapped her hands and said "Oh my God!" over and over. He hugged her.
Obama was in Baltimore on Thursday to meet with Senate Democrats at their annual retreat. The party lost the Senate majority in the November elections.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said Obama emphasized that the party should keep pushing to help middle-class families.
Baltimore Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.