Obama uses personal experience to advocate for family leave, workplace flexibility


President Barack Obama at the White House Summit on Working Families on Monday. The first-ever summit was held to discuss flexible workplace policies beneficial to working parents and employers. (Martin H. Simon / Pool/EPA)

An animated President Obama cast the need for flexible workplace policies and paid family leave in personal terms Monday, recalling the days when he and the first lady juggled children and careers.

Speaking at the White House Summit on Working Families, Obama highlighted the issues that he said working families face each day, including a lack of affordable child care or paid maternity leave and the reluctance of many employers to allow parents to work flexible schedules.

“Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage — these are not frills, they are basic needs,” Obama said. “They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society. ”

Speaking to a crowd filled with more women than men, Obama also said the challenge was not “a women’s issue” and mattered to him personally. He referred to his mother, who pursued graduate studies and a career, and to his grandmother, who worked at a bank. “I was raised by strong women who worked hard to support my sister and me,” he said.

“I take this personally because I’m the husband of a brilliant woman who struggled to balance work and raising our girls when I was away,” Obama continued. “And most of all, I take it personally because I am the father of two unbelievable young ladies.”

Obama signed a presidential memo Monday directing the federal government to expand access to flexible time for workers and directed Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to head a $25 million initiative to help people who want to enroll in job-training programs but do not have access to child care. He said initiatives such as those addressing the minimum wage and expanded pre-kindergarten are aimed in part at helping those who struggle to afford child care.

In 31 states, Obama said, the cost of child care exceeds the cost of in-state tuition at local colleges and universities.

The president endorsed a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) that would protect pregnant women from discrimination in the workplace. The measure would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, such as providing a stool or water for them, and would protect women from retaliation if they ask for these accommodations.

“Many of these issues, they’re not partisan until they get to Washington,” Obama said.

Obama also bemoaned the fact that the United States is the only developed nation not to offer paid maternity leave. But he did not endorse the leading Democratic proposal in Congress aimed at providing paid leave, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act. The measure would offer workers 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their salary up to $4,000 a month and would offset its $20 billion annual price tag by increasing the payroll-tax contribution for workers and companies by 0.2 percentage points.

Doing that would effectively raise taxes on the middle class — violating one of Obama’s major 2008 promises: not to raise taxes on any household earning less than $250,000 a year.

Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), the lead author of the FAMILY Act in the House, said that while she would have welcomed a formal endorsement of the bill, she was encouraged by Obama’s focus on paid leave in his remarks.

“The president could not have been stronger in terms of the concept in terms of doing this, and getting this done,” DeLauro said in an interview. “For the first time as part of the public discourse, the public debate, we are focused on the economic challenges women face overwhelmingly. And that’s new.”

DeLauro belongs to a group of female House Democrats who developed a platform in the fall under the title “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” — a phrase Obama later adopted. House Democrats recently did an eight-city bus tour stressing the importance of paid leave and other issues facing working families.

Republicans, for their part, are touting their own proposals to provide more flexibility for working parents. The House has passed legislation that would allow private-sector employers to give employees who work overtime a choice between extra pay or extra compensatory time; Utah Republican Mike Lee has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Public polling suggests that majorities in both parties back the idea of paid leave, although Republicans back it by a narrower margin than Democrats and independents. A 2010 survey commissioned by the Public Welfare Foundation found support for paid sick days was 75 percent overall, with 61 percent favoring it “strongly.” Sixty-two percent of Republicans favored such a law, along with 90 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of independents. After several arguments for and against it were heard, Republican support dipped to 54 percent, while Democratic backing ticked up to 95 percent.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” said Joan Lombardi, a child care expert who served as a senior Health and Human Services Department official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

Zachary A. Goldfarb and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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