On Monday, the White House convened the first-ever Summit on Working Families, a day-long event with break-out sessions and speakers that included the president himself. While he noted that “work gives us a sense of place and dignity as well as a source of income,” he added, “Family is also the bedrock of our lives, and we don’t want a society that makes you make a choice between those two things.”
Today, half of both working mothers and working fathers say that it is difficult to balance work and family needs. But many feel that this is a personal failing. “Part of the point of this summit is to make clear you’re not alone,” Obama said. “These problems… can’t just be fixed by working harder or being an even better parent. All too often they are the result of outdated policies.”
In his speech and in actions announced on Monday, he outlined ways to update those policies and give working parents a break:
1. Paid Family Leave
Out of 185 countries, the United States is one of just three that don’t guarantee some form of paid maternity leave. Seventy-eight also offer paid paternity leave. As President Obama noted in his remarks, “Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth. That’s a pretty low bar.” He also noted that his own ability to take time off when his daughters were born let him bond with them and said, “I want every father and every child to have that opportunity.”
To change things, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said at the summit that the administration will “invest in the creation of state paid leave programs.” So far, only three states — California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — have paid family leave programs, which can be used by men and women for the arrival of a new child or to care for themselves or a family member, but on Monday the administration announced that it would provide money to five states to help them study the feasibility of paid leave policies. The Labor Department will also fund two studies to asses current ones.
Obama also supported a national paid family leave program. The lack of one “needs to change,” he said. “Other countries know how to do this. If France can figure this out, we can figure this out.” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest added later that the administration would support a federal law. One was introduced in December but hasn’t moved forward.
Obama noted that child care “costs thousands of dollars a year” and in some states “more than instate college tuition.” Costs have kept rising as spending on assistance for low-income families who can’t afford it has hit a decade low.
As part of the actions Obama announced on Monday, the administration will devote $25 million to job training for people who don’t have the childcare they need. Obama also cited his push for universal preschool and again pointed out that the United States falls behind on affordable, high-quality daycare. “There are other countries that know how to do childcare well,” he said. “This isn’t rocket science.”
3. Workplace Flexibility
Describing how important job flexibility was to his family while both he and Michelle Obama worked full time before they got to the White House, he noted, “A lot of Americans are not as lucky as we have been.” To help workers get more flexible policies, such as the ability to work part time, work alternative hours, telework, and take leave when needed, he signed a Presidential Memorandum on Monday directing the heads of all federal agencies to expand access. The memorandum also instituted a “right-to-request” law such as those in place in Vermont in San Francisco that requires employers to set up a process through which employees can negotiate for any flextime adjustments.
In a breakout session at the summit, Katherine Archuleta, director of the Office of Personnel Management, explained that the memorandum will have her office assist agencies in reviewing their policies so that both employees and employers understand what is available and to make sure they are accessible to workers. It will also review whether agencies are making best use of the policies. While it doesn’t reach into the private sector, Archuleta pointed out that the federal government is “the largest employer in the country… We have nearly 2 million employees.”
4. Minimum Wage Increase
But the administration has taken some actions. Perez noted that a rule change from his department in September means that “two million home health workers have access to the minimum wage and overtime.” Obama also pointed out that he issued an executive order earlier in the year that raised the required minimum wage for the employees of federal contractors to $10.10.
5. Pay Equality
President Obama also mentioned equal pay for women workers. “If you do the same work, you should get the same pay, and you should be able to enforce it,” he told the audience. He called on Congress to “pass the Paycheck Fairness Act today,” which would end salary secrecy for the nearly 50 percent of workers who can’t discuss their pay with colleagues and increase the penalties for employers who have unfair pay differences between genders. He also mentioned the executive order he signed in April banning salary secrecy for federal contractors.
6. Protection For Pregnant Workers
Obama noted that “right now, if your’e pregnant, you could get fired for taking too many bathroom breaks” or forced onto unpaid leave. “That makes no sense,” he said, and called on Congress to “pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act without delay.”
Although the Pregnancy Discrimination Act bars employer discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or childbirth, more than a quarter million pregnant workers are denied their requests for a simple accommodation such as bathroom breaks, lighter duties, or a stool to sit on each year. That can mean they end up fired, on unpaid leave, or risking the health of their babies. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require employers to make those small changes unless they could prove undue hardship. It was reintroduced last year but didn’t even get a hearing.
Many of these proposals would take federal lawmakers to do something. But Obama stated, “If Congress won’t act, we need mayors to act, state legislators to act, CEOs to act.” He also promised “you have a president who will take action to support working families.