President Obama said Monday he is asking the Department of Labor to issue rules by the end of the year to pave the way for states to enact mandatory opt-out retirement savings plans for workers at small companies.

The aim of the guidance is to relieve the worry of some states that if they try to impose mandatory retirement plans, their actions could be nullified by ERISA, DOL Secretary Tom Perez said in a blog issued near the same time as the president’s speech to the White House Conference on Aging.

While the courts would have the final word on whether state plans conflict with federal law, National Conference of State Legislatures retirement expert Luke Martel said in an interview that DOL’s rules should encourage states with more legal clarity and certainty to adopt mandatory retirement savings vehicles. “This is something the states have been looking for,” Martel said.

Both Illinois and California have enacted legislation to require small employers without retirement savings plans to offer payroll deduction plans, with the money going to state-sponsored retirement investment funds.

Illinois is implementing the system while California still needs more legislation to put its retirement savings operation into practice.

Washington state has passed a law creating a marketplace from which employees could choose from a number of private-sector retirement vehicles.

Massachusetts is getting ready to set up mandatory retirement savings for small nonprofits.

At least 15 states have considered legislation this year to create mandatory retirement savings plans for small-company workers.

Big states such as California and Illinois are often looked to as role models for the rest of the nation. Martel said he has seen retirement legislation increase year after year.

Tens of millions of Americans, one of every three workers, do not have access to on-the-job retirement savings plans. All of them work for small operations.

At the White House Conference on Aging, Obama said the nation has a lot to be proud of in the way it treats its seniors, but more has to be done to rein in the rising costs for people over 65 and to relieve the shortage of eldercare workers.   

“We need to take a longer look at strengthening retirement even more,” the president said.

Both Obama and the Labor Secretary used the occasion to push for the proposed DOL fiduciary rule for advisors to retireement plan participants.

“The goal here is to put an end to Wall Street brokers who benefit from backdoor payments or hidden fees at the expense of their clients. If they are advising you on how to save your money, they should be looking out for you -- not for somebody who’s selling a product that may not be best for you,” Obama said.