President Obama will announce a series of proposals on Monday morning aimed at easing the competing demands of work and caregiving for families, including more workplace flexibility, early childhood education, equal access to benefits for same-sex married couples and a push for paid parental leave.
The efforts, a combination of public initiatives and private incentives, would begin significantly expanding protections and benefits working families for the first time in more than 20 years.
The proposals include:
*A Presidential Memorandum that directs all federal agencies to implement existing workplace flexibility initiatives and institutes a new “right to request” flexible work policy.
The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, the state of Vermont and the city of San Francisco have passed laws guaranteeing workers a right to request flexible work arrangements without the fear of reprisal or stigma.
The memorandum also calls for federal managers to be trained in effectively managing a flexible workforce — which research has found doesn’t happen often in corporate America and is often a big barrier to changing workplace practices. And it calls for a new Workplace Flexibility Index to track federal agencies’ progress.
*A call for Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and prohibit employers from forcing pregnant workers to take paid or unpaid leave rather than offering a reasonable accommodation.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that cases of pregnancy discrimination are on the rise, despite a law dating to the 1970s to prohibit it. In some cases, pregnant workers have been denied accommodations — such as being given desk work instead of heavy lifting — that workers with other medical issues, such as back trouble, routinely are granted.
*An extension of workplace protections to all families, including same-sex married couples, equally, including the Family Medical Leave Act, the only current U.S. family-friendly policy that enables workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for themselves or an ailing family member or care for a child after birth or adoption or when fostering.
*Money for job training to help low-wage workers advance, with $25 million aimed at helping those with child-care responsibilities.
*An expansion of voluntary home visits for parents with children in Early Head Start programs and universal pre-kindergarten classes for all 4-year-olds.
*A new report by the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services on the administration’s push to expand early childhood education and efforts to improve safety and quality standards. The United States has no national safety and quality standards for child care, and state standards vary wildly.
*Money for five states to study the feasibility of development paid-leave laws. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island are the only states with paid parental-leave programs, funded by employee contributions to a temporary disability insurance fund. This provision has been in Obama’s proposed budget in the past and has gone nowhere. In addition, the Labor Department is funding two independent studies to assess current paid-leave programs.
*A push to get more women into science and tech careers, including regulations giving federal scientists child-care allowances when they attend professional conferences.
*Efforts to close the wage gap. Although women make up nearly half the workforce, a host of studies and research show that they still do not earn equal pay for equal work and equal work time, with mothers earning far less than other workers — a phenomenon that researchers call the “motherhood penalty.”
*A working group of businesses, including Ernst & Young, Johnson and Johnson, KPMG and others, to consult on industry best practices to support working families.
Will this all make a difference for working families?
In 2010, Obama held a White House forum on workplace flexibility and released reports, case studies and statistics showing how the changing American workforce, struggling to juggle work and caregiving, could benefit from flexible work schedules, and how that, in turn, would make businesses more profitable by boosting employee morale, loyalty and productivity and reducing turnover costs.
And although there has been some progress, with studies showing more firms allowing at least some flexibility for some employees some of the time, many still resist change. An updated report released at the summit found that fewer than one-third of full-time employees report having access to flexible work schedules.