President Obama has made affordable childcare, paid family leave, and flexible work policies a priority in his administration. To expand upon that mission, the president is unveiling on Labor Day a new executive order to give workers with federal contracts paid sick leave each year. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett opens up to Yahoo Parenting about the benefits of this new initiative, why it’s an illusion that paid family leave comes at a “steep cost” for the economy, what work-life balance in the White House looks like, and some of the challenges the president and first lady have had while juggling their careers and raising their daughters, Malia and Sasha.
1. What are the benefits of having paid family leave and flexible workforce policies? What are some of the obstacles?
When more people are able join the workforce, our entire economy benefits. For example, according to the Council of Economic Advisers, we are about $2 trillion richer as a country because more women are working, and working more hours, since 1970. But we are still not fielding our full team. Paid leave and other working families policies help more Americans stay in the workforce and continue growing our economy.
Family demographics and needs have shifted over time. Nearly half of the workforce is comprised of women. And 40 percent of working moms are either the primary or sole earner in their families. In 62 percent of families with children, all adults are working. Yet our workplaces have not kept pace with that changing reality, and too many families are struggling to balance their obligations at home and on the job. Today, a staggering 44 million private sector workers do not have access to paid sick leave. Even though 60 percent of our country’s workers are eligible under the Family and Medical Leave Act to take unpaid leave for childbirth or serious illnesses, many are low- and middle-income workers who simple cannot afford to lose their pay to stay home, or risk losing their job.
No parent should have to choose between a paycheck and staying home with a sick child or caring for an aging parent. Paid leave policies can help these families better balance their responsibilities at home and at work, while also benefiting their employers and the economy. Evidence shows that companies that offer paid leave and other family friendly policies see lower turnover rates, higher worker morale, improved productivity, and in the private sector, greater profitability. So it is no surprise that more businesses are choosing to expand paid leave for their employees.
A recent poll found that almost half of America’s working parents have turned down a job because it would conflict with their family responsibilities, an unfortunate reality that stunts our economy’s growth and dynamism. By ensuring Americans can choose jobs based on where they will be most productive, not on how well they can balance their family responsibilities, we can build an economy that thrives in the 21st century.
Malia, Sasha, President Obama, and the first lady. (Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage)
2. What are the steps the White House is taking to help families with paid leave and flexible workforce policies?
Today, President Obama is in Boston to announce a new executive order that gives about 300,000 workers with federal contracts the new ability to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave each year. This leave can be used whether the worker is sick or needs to care for a loved one. Giving workers that flexibility will not only be good for them, it will be good for taxpayers, too, because our contractors will be stronger and more productive.
The United States is the only developed country that does not have paid maternity leave. So President Obama is once again urging Congress to provide the important security of paid family leave to all American families.
President Obama is building on a number of his past steps to expand access to paid leave. Last year, we hosted the first ever White House Summit on Working Families and heard directly from workers, advocates, legislators, and businesses about the importance of working families economic policies. Since then, Secretary [of Labor Thomas] Perez and I have been traveling around the country on our “Lead on Leave” tour, visiting cities, states, and businesses who are leaders in implementing paid family leave and paid sick days. We have been thrilled by the local response. Cities including Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and Boston, among others, have either passed laws requiring paid leave or are exploring such laws. In total, 21 states, cities, and counties have taken action on paid sick leave and 15 have acted on paid family leave for their workers since the president first challenged the country to act in 2014.
3. Why are parental leave policies that are aimed at both moms and dads important? How can we encourage more fathers to take leave and make that more universally accepted?
Paid parental leave policies are critical to enabling moms and dads to share in the responsibility and joy of caring for their children. Fortunately, men increasingly want to share in child-rearing responsibilities, but men are also much less likely to take leave if it is unpaid. Research has shown that fathers who take two weeks or more of leave are much more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth than those who take shorter leaves. So paid leave means more fathers changing diapers and bonding with their children! California’s paid family leave program more than doubled the rate of men taking leave after the birth of their child.
As usual, change will not happen in Washington until it comes to Washington. We need dads who have taken paternity leave to speak out and talk about how important it was for them to be with their family. Culture change can only happen when more fathers and their employers highlight the benefits of paid leave.
The president and Valerie Jarrett during a briefing in the Oval Office. (Photo: Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)
4. President Obama and the first lady have been open about juggling their careers and raising their children. Do they have a personal experience that helps shape their views on the importance of paid family leave and flexible work policies?
When Sasha and Malia were young and President Obama was in the state Senate, he spent a lot of time in Springfield. He often acknowledges that most of the responsibility for caring for their daughters rested on the first lady at the same time that she was trying to balance her obligations at work. If either child was sick, it was the first lady who had to take off work to stay with them.
The first lady fondly tells the story of taking Sasha with her to a job interview when she did not have a sitter, thinking that if her prospective boss was uncomfortable with Sasha’s presence, it was not the right job for her. He was delighted and the first lady accepted the job offer. It was also important to the first lady that she have the flexibility to take and pick up her children from school. Again, her boss gave her the flexibility because he knew that the first lady would be more productive if she was able to fulfill her parental responsibilities.
For a long time, President Obama was unable to be home in time for dinner, but when he was elected president he decided that needed to change. He made a commitment to his family and himself to be there for dinner as often as possible, and he has honored that promise.
5. Why do you think the U.S. has been slow to adopt some of these policies, such as paid family leave, compared with the rest of the world?
Some suggest putting them into place would carry a steep cost, but the truth is we are paying an even steeper price for inaction, as is detailed in a new report called “The Cost of Doing Nothing” from the Department of Labor.
Studies show that access to paid leave increases the likelihood that mothers will work after childbirth and that it is associated with higher pay for mothers. Without paid leave, children are often sicker and less likely to have their fathers take time off to bond with them. Without paid leave, businesses may lose more new working mothers. According to the Labor Department’s report, if American women aged 25 to 54 participated in the labor force at the same rate as Canadian and German women — whose countries have paid leave and other family friendly policies — we could see $500 billion more in economic activity each year.
That’s why the president called on Congress to establish a national paid family and medical leave program. And that’s why the president called on states and cities to follow the example of Massachusetts and other leading states and pass laws expanding paid leave.
6. How does the White House set an example of work-life balance for staffers with families?
The president understands deeply that bringing the best out of our workers means having policies that show we care about our workers. That’s why he has used the stroke of his pen to expand workplace flexibilities for staff at the White House and throughout the federal government. In January, the president issued a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to advance up to six weeks of paid sick leave to care for a new child or a seriously ill family member, and he called on Congress to pass legislation giving federal employees six additional weeks of paid parental leave.
White House staff now can take up to 12 weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave. And just recently, three senior level women have taken their full leave to be with their new children. If they can successfully do it even in a fast-paced, high-stakes environment like the White House, there is really no excuse for other employers! No matter where we work, it is critical that we can care for our families and take time off to be with our new children or aging parents. We should all be able to honor our highest priorities.
(Top photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
Yahoo Parenting has chosen this story, originally published on September 7, as an example of one of our best of 2015.