We need paid leave, flexibility and better pay. We’ve heard this before — will a summit make a difference?


The U.S. is only one of three countries without paid leave. (BigStock)

Today, we’re sitting in on the White House Summit on Working Families. What does this mean for you? Unfortunately for now, probably nothing. At least not directly, not now. This, despite the fact the president announced a series of proposals aimed at making life a little easier for working parents. So why nothing? Because there’s very little both sides of the political aisle agree on. But the issue of workplace flexibility is becoming more prominent, particularly as campaign time is already ramping up. It’s not like White Housers don’t know the conflict working parents face.

So will simply a conversation like today help? The fact that we’re talking about this — political leaders, working parents, advocates, academics, journalists — will it change the way we live and work and try to patch a good life together?

We’ll let you know as the day and the months roll along. Some facts to ponder: The U.S. is anything but a leader when it comes to leave policies. 

 

Brigid Schulte 5:30:  President Barack Obama said the point of the White House Summit on Working Families was to let people know that they’re not alone – not alone in the morning madness, rushing to get out the door, not alone in struggling to make ends meet and race home to get to the child care pick up on time – child care that is often wildly expensive and uneven in quality.

Michelle Obama said the point of the summit was to change the conversation, to create a grassroots movement that will put pressure on elected officials to make legislative changes that are not now on the table.

“Movements don’t happen in 24 hours,” she told the hand-picked crowd. “The ones who are coming into the workforce now are the ones who can push for a new paradigm. But it’s going to take time.”

Brigid Schulte 5 pm: 

Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon from the 1970s, looking unbelievably little changed at 80, urged people to get involved at the local level. “I think of our effort as freeing Nancy Pelosi,” she said. “If we could change state legislatures, we could change the nature of Washington.”

Brigid Schulte 4:30: Helen Blank, of the National Women’s Law Center, and Teresa Younger, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation, released a new report on the struggles of low-income workers, most of whom are women, with child care and work schedules.

Low-wage workers spend 30 percent of their income on child care, compared to 7 percent of families at all income workers, according to their report.

And work schedules for low-wage workers are often erratic, unpredictable and inconsistent, which can mean that workers have to slap together child care and use inconsistent public transportation to rush into work. And then, with on call and just in time scheduling, some are sent back home if business has fallen off and their labor is no longer needed.

“That kind of chaos in their lives and their children’s lives, create toxic stress,” Blank said. “That’s not good for women, for their health, for their parenting and for their children.”

Younger said the report focuses on low-income workers in the “Panini” generation. “They’re not just the sandwich generation,” she explained. “These are people caring for the older generation and the younger generation who are getting absolutely squeezed.”

Brigid Schulte 3:30: The view from the right: James Sherk is a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He wasn’t at the summit, but provided a different perspective – and one that many GOP and teaparty lawmakers also hold:

“Both the left and the right want to help families in difficult situations. But government policies often have unintended consequences that can hurt those policymakers want to help. Many of the policies the White House has suggested would – unintentionally — harm working families. Good intentions do not guarantee good results.”

On Paid leave: “Economists across the ideological spectrum agree that employers take the cost of mandatory benefits out of their employee’s cash wages. … Requiring mandatory paid leave would effectively require working parents to accept an offsetting pay cut.”

On Flexible work: “Flexible work arrangements benefit workers and help them balance work and family lives. I commend the White House for expanding flexible work arrangements in the federal government. But federal law makes it illegal for private-sector employers to offer flex-time benefits to hourly employees. Further, the President’s proposal to extend overtime requirements to salaried professional workers who make less than $50,000 a year will strongly discourage their employers from providing flexible work arrangements. Their employers will have to log their hours to calculate overtime obligations – even if they incur none. Consequently many salaried employees will be prohibited from working from home where their hours cannot be tracked. They will have to report into work in their office. The head of HR for Pitney Bowes, a large manufacturer, recently told the press the company wanted to let several dozen sales-support employees work from home. They had to turn down the request; the employees qualified for overtime and the firm could not track their hours remotely.”

Is that your experience? Let us know.

Brigid Schulte 2:45: Gayle Goldin, the Rhode Island state legislator who pushed for the state’s paid family leave policy that went into effect earlier this year, said states will have to lead the way on policies for working families. “I think states have always been innovators and taken the lead on these issues,” she said. “The same thing happened with the unpaid Family Medical Leave Act.”

Rhode Island was one of three states that passed a state unpaid family medical leave act in 1987, she said. It would take several more years – and more movement on the state level – before Congress finally enacted the FMLA and president Bill Clinton signed – after George H.W. Bush had vetoed it. “Sometimes it takes momentum on the state level to push it to the national level,” she said. It’s the same strategy that has moved legislation on marriage equality and other issues, she said.

Marcia Cone, chief executive officer of the Rhode Island Women’s Fund, said she wasn’t disheartened by the lack of action on the national level. “I’ve been working in the trenches for 12 years on these issues. To come here makes you feel you’re not alone,” she said. “To be honest, it feels more like a movement now than it ever has before.”

Brigid Schulte 2:15: No major policy to support working families have passed Congress in 20 years. And with that institution so mired in partisan gridlock, President Barack Obama said Monday that he would rely on executive orders and action at the state and local level to push an agenda for flexible work, child care and paid parental leave to ease work-family conflict.

The package of policy initiatives Obama announced at the summit on Monday show clearly that the president is bypassing Congress: there are no calls for new national legislation like a paid parental leave act that has been introduced and hasn’t moved. Another bill to provide paid leave just to federal workers has languished for years.

The biggest new initiative announced Monday, in a package of smaller and largely recycled initiatives, is a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to give federal workers the right to request flexible work.

Connecticut and a number of cities have passed legislation to give workers paid sick days. Three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have passed state paid parental leave laws. While Congress has yet to act on raising the minimum wage, 13 states have taken measures to do so on their own.

“While we wait for Congress, I’m going to do what I can to act on my own,” Obama said at the White House Summit on Working Families – the first time in two decades that policy to support working families has moved from the margins to the mainstream and center stage. “Mayors, governors, state legislators, CEOS need to act.”

When it comes to paid family leave, Obama said that some women in the United States don’t have even one paid day off to have a baby. “That’s a pretty low bar,” he said.

When Obama mentioned congressional inaction, the crowd hissed. “Don’t boo,” Obama said. “Vote.”

Obama said that for too long, working family policies have been seen as “women’s issues” and thus “scooted off to the side.” He called them “common sense” policies. “It’s about you, too, men.”​

Brigid Schulte 1 p.m.: Bob Mortiz, US Chair and senior partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, said 70 percent of the Millennials in their firm value flexible work to have time for work and life, whether they have kids or not. And Baby Boomers are not that far behind in valuing it.

“Flexibility is hugely important,” Moritz said at a panel on the business case for flexible work. “The only difference is, Millennials will walk with their feet.”

He also said that middle managers were key. Flexible policies can be supported from the top, and valued at the bottom, but if middle managers don’t get it, it isn’t real. So training and tone is key to making flexibility work, he said, as well as talking publicly and openly about flexibility being normal and expected, and making the case for why that’s important

Mortiz said the company found that when they moved to give workers unlimited paid time off, the number of sick days employees take actually went down. Now, the company has moved from Flexible Fridays to flexibility 24/7, 365 days a year.

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, said that the business case for flexibility is “obvious,” and that companies with work-life policies grow faster, have higher profits and better management and are more productive than companies without it.

So why, if flexible workplaces are so much more efficient, is there still such a stigma about flexible work?

Research has found that mothers who work flexible schedules are seen as less committed to the workplace, and that fathers are even more severely punished.​

Amy Joyce 12:50: Carol Evans, founder of Working Mother Media, which has published a must-read list of the 100 best employers for mothers annually for 29 years, said that the biggest change she’s seen in companies is a switch from programs and policies that support working mothers to more systemic thinking. Companies found they were losing highly talented women because mothers “couldn’t handle the complex nature of family and work.” She sees more companies accepting and adopting flexible workplace arrangements — whether that be the ability for workers to work from home, or just the idea that it’s okay to be at home with a sick child.

On average, the lists’ best companies are giving eight weeks of paid maternity leave, and three weeks of paternity leave, she said. Eighty percent of companies have “phase back” maternity leave policies. But it’s not just right yet. “The company culture. That’s where I want more change to happen,” she said.

Amy Joyce 11 am: Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY (formerly Ernst and Young), is speaking about how his company, which employs 180,000 people, hires 60,000 people a year. “We can’t afford to not retain them,” he said.

He makes the economic case for making sure employees are happy and able to get home to their kids. He mentions that he has four teens at home and tells employees when he has to leave to get to something related to his family. “If you give them permission because you’re open about it, it’ll give them permission” to find a flexible way of working. How many times have you stayed at the office for facetime? Or snuck out, not letting someone know it was because you had to go to a child’s kindergarten performance?

“Big companies, companies that are involved in training professionals, those are the ones who want to retain their workers,” said Claudia Golden, professor of economics at Harvard. “They invest a lot in workers. They have great incentives to put those policies in place.”

 

 

leavegraphic

Brigid Schulte, 10 am: As hundreds of work-family advocates and researchers filed into the ballroom at the White House Summit on Working Families, Stewart Friedman, director of the Wharton School of Business’ Work/Life Integration Project and one of the first men to focus on work-life issues – and was told he’d ruin his career if he did – had one nagging thought: was today’s summit anything more than a symbolic event?

“We need to see more, bolder executive action to create real support for paid family leave,” he said. “The right to request flexibility is a good thing. And maybe the symbolic value of this event and array of policy initiatives is good. But it’s not enough.”

President Obama is announcing a new Presidential Memorandum giving federal workers the right to request a flexible schedule – something that workers in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand have. In those countries, workers who request flexibility must be granted it, unless the employer can prove the schedule would hurt business. In the Uniited States, Vermont and San Francisco passed right to request flexible work laws that went into effect earlier this year. But those policies don’t have the same guarantee – employers only have to respond to the requests.

But when it comes to paid parental leave – the United States is one of only three countries that recent global surveys have found has no paid leave policy, along with Papua New Guinea and Oman – the president’s “big” paid leave announcement Monday is the creation of a fund for five states to explore the feasibility of creating state paid leave programs. And two Department of Labor of studies exploring how the existing three state paid leave programs – in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island – are working for families and for businesses.

Though Obama expressed support for paid leave in his Saturday address, he didn’t mention the FAMILY Act calling for a national paid parental leave law, funded by both employers and employees, much like Social Security, now pending in Congress.

“It’s clear, when you look around this room, that there’s a groundswell of interest. And the need is great to create parity for men and women in terms of economic possibilities and the freedom to play active roles in the domestic sphere,” Friedman said. “This is such a small step toward human liberation. We have so far to go.”

The current state paid leave policies are funded entirely by employee contributions to a temporary disability insurance fund. Employers and taxpayers pay nothing.

Plus, the state paid leave fund announced Monday is not new. Obama has included the provision in his proposed budget. And legislation to make it law has been languishing in Congress.

“It’s tragic that our system lags so far behind other nations,” Friedman said.

And the consequences are huge: young Millennials with the most education and resources are choosing not to have children. Friedman’s most recent book, “Baby Bust,” a study of the aspirations of young men and women, found that in the last 20 years, half as many Millennials at Wharton plan to become parents.

“Young men and women are opting out of parenthood because they don’t see how it can work,” Friedman said. ​

 

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How no leave impacts real people

Amy Joyce is the editor and a writer for On Parenting.
Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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Amy Joyce · June 20