How Barack Obama Changed the Rules of the Workplace

Labor News

US President Barack Obama leaves after announcing the nomination of Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, a Hispanic American, as the next US secretary of labor during a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 18, 2013. Perez will replace Hilda Solis, who resigned the Labor Department's top position in January. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Reprinted from The Huffington Post by Dave Jamieson on January 6, 2017.

In early 2014, as his domestic agenda languished with a Republican Congress, President Barack Obama undertook what White House staffers called the “pen-and-phone” strategy. Unable to overcome GOP opposition on Capitol Hill, the president vowed to implement whatever reforms he could through executive action. “We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need,” he told his Cabinet members. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.”

In the months that followed, he unleashed a slew of new rules and executive actions meant to improve job conditions and boost paychecks. He signed an order raising the minimum wage for workers under federal contracts to $10.10 per hour. He signed another guaranteeing them paid sick days. He went after financial advisers who reap large fees from retirement plans. And most significantly, he reformed the country’s overtime rules to make them more generous to workers, potentially making millions of salaried employees eligible for time-and-a-half pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week.

Now, in the last days of his presidency, those reforms exemplify Obama’s successes and shortcomings as he wrestled with Republicans over his economic agenda for six years. The White House genuinely believed those kinds of changes would improve the lives of poor and middle-class workers. They pursued them in the face of heavy lobbying from powerful business groups. And in carrying them out, they expected to burnish Obama’s legacy as a president who helped shape a fairer economy for the folks at the bottom, with or without cooperation from Congress. …

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Jeff Burman represents assistant editors on the Guild’s Board of Directors. He can be reached at

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