During the Summit on Working Families on Monday, First Lady Michelle Obama recalled once bringing her youngest daughter to a job interview.
“Who I was at that time was a breastfeeding mother of a four-month-old, I didn’t have a babysitter, so I took Sasha to the interview with me,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Look, this is — this is who I am; I got a husband who’s away; I got two little babies, they are my priority. If you want me to do the job, you gotta pay me to do the job, and you’ve gotta give me flexibility.”
Echoing the struggle many Americans face in striking a balance between work and home life, the First Lady joined her husband President Barack Obama, the White House, the Department of Labor, and the Center for American Progress in hosting a day-long discussion directed at creating better workplace policies for parents.
Business leaders (including CEOs from Johnson & Johnson and Goldman Sachs), lawmakers, working families, and White House officials participated in the all-day summit, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden.
At Monday afternoon’s remarks, Obama announced a presidential memorandum requiring federal agencies to provide employees more flexibility to take time off to take care of ill family members, to nurse, or to be able to work from home without suffering repercussions. Though the president did not offer up a plan requiring paid leave, he outlined four major themes that could help create a better life for American workers.
The White House argues that more flexible schedules lead to happier employees, boosts productivity, and reduces turnaround rates, as Bloomberg Businessweek points out. As a part of the president’s executive order, federal agencies are required to review their policies on flexibilities as a part of the Office of Personnel Management’s plan to create a Workplace Flexibility Index, which will be updated annually to measure success, according to a White House fact sheet.
Obama also urged lawmakers to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers to accommodate pregnant women with flexibility that would allow them to keep their jobs.
Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks also spoke, illustrating the point that U.S. workplace policies were outdated. Using her character on the AMC series, a single mom and professional, Hendricks said, “In the 21st century the only place for a story like Joan’s should be on TV.”
Paid family leave
Obama also pointed out that the U.S. is the only developed country without mandated paid maternity leave. Women now comprise half the American workforce while men are increasingly playing the role of caregivers more than ever before.
“Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth,” Obama said. “That’s a pretty low bar.”
Obama also urged Congress to pass the FAMILY Act, which would annually provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to qualifying workers for personal illness, to take care of a sick family member, or for the birth or adoption of a child. While current federal policy allows up to three months of unpaid leave for newborns or sick family members for some employees, the law only covers about 60 percent of the American labor force—leaving almost half of all workers without the ability take leave sans a paycheck, the president argues.
Child care was also mentioned at the summit. As a part of his initiative for better work policies, Obama will ask Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to set aside $25 million towards childcare for employees who want to attend job-training programs. Today, more than 60 percent of families with children live in a dual-income household, compared to only 40 percent of households with two working parents in 1965, according to U.S Council of Economic Advisors report.
“One study shows that nearly half of all parents, women and men, report that they’ve said no to a job, not because they didn’t want it, but because it would be too hard on their families,” Obama said. “When that many talented, hard-working people are forced to choose between work and family, something’s wrong. Other countries are making it easier for people to have both. We should too, if we want American businesses to compete and win in the global economy.”
Equal pay and raising the minimum wage
The president also emphasized pay equality and increasing the minimum wage as part of setting a 21st century workplace agenda. While females are more likely to work in low-wage and minimum-wage jobs than men, more than 40 percent of mothers are their family’s primary breadwinner yet they earn just 77 cents to every dollar, on average, compared to their male counterparts, according to White House economic advisers.
The President argued that by limiting the female labor force the U.S. is hindering its global edge. The U.S. ranks 17th in female labor participation among the world’s richest countries, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Back in 1990, the U.S. placed sixth.
These four narratives underscored a greater message from the White House: supporting families through better workplace policies is not just a women’s issue.
“At a time when women are nearly half of our workforce,” Obama said, “anything that makes life harder for women, makes life harder for families, and makes life harder for children. There’s no such thing as a women’s issue; this is a family issue. This is an American issue.”