In February, Obama signed an executive order increasing the hourly minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 per to $10.10. While White House officials estimated such an increase would affect only a small percentage of federal contract workers, they said the move could encourage states or individual businesses to act on their own to increase workers' wages.
Obama has also pushed his workplace initiatives beyond just federal contractors where possible. Last month he instructed the Labor Department to come up with new workplace overtime rules for all employers, a power the administration has under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
But presidents have most direct power over the workforce that is paid with taxpayers' money.
Obama's go-it-alone strategy is hardly new. The most enduring workplace anti-discrimination laws began with an executive order signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in June 25, 1941, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, creed and national origin in the federal government and defense industries.
President John F. Kennedy broadened that in 1961 with an order that required government contractors to take affirmative action to ensure hiring "without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin."
President George W. Bush also acted on his own when he ordered federal contractors to ensure that their workers were in the country legally by requiring the use of an electronic employment-verification system.
Jeffrey Hirsch, a former lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board, said presidential executive orders that affect federal contracting workforces can over time demonstrate that those practices are less onerous than initially imagined.
"It's an important step in implementing things in a broader scale," said Hirsch, now a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
By employing such executive actions, however, Obama has also drawn attention to areas where he has chosen not to act on his own.
The White House has resisted pressure from gay rights advocates who want have Obama to sign an anti-discrimination executive order that would protect gays and lesbians working for federal contractors. The White House wants the House to approve a Senate-passed bill extending those protections to all Americans.
On Friday, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights group, criticized the White House for saying such an executive order would be redundant if Congress were to pass a White House-supported bill. It's an argument the White House has not made when it comes to minimum wage or anti-gag rule orders imposed on federal contractors.
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