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Huffington Post - Family-Friendly Workplace Policies Are Not Frills -- They're Basic Needs

Op-Ed

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By Barack Obama

As President, my top priority is rebuilding an economy where everybody who works hard has the chance to get ahead.

That's the subject of the first White House Summit on Working Families, which is taking place today. We're bringing together business leaders and workers to talk about the challenges that working parents face every day and how we can address them.

Take flexibility -- the ability to take a few hours off for a school play or to work from home when your kid is sick. Most workers want it, but not enough of them have it -- even though studies show that flexibility makes workers happier and helps companies lower turnover and raise productivity.

Take paid family leave. Many jobs don't offer adequate leave to care for a new baby or an ailing parent, so workers can't afford to be there when their families need them the most. And the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave.

Take childcare. Most working families I know can't afford thousands a year for childcare, but often, that's what it costs. I recently got a letter from a woman in Minnesota whose kids' preschool is so expensive it costs more every month than her mortgage.

And take the minimum wage. Nearly 28 million Americans would benefit if we raised the minimum wage to $10.10. And we're not just talking about young people on their first job -- the average worker who would benefit from an increase is 35 years old. Many have kids. And a majority are women. Right now, many full-time minimum-wage workers aren't even making enough to keep their kids out of poverty.

Family leave, childcare, flexibility and a decent wage aren't frills. They're basic needs. They shouldn't be bonuses -- they should be the bottom line.

Parents who work full-time should earn enough to pay the bills and go to work every day knowing that their kids are in good hands. Workers who give their all should know that if they need some flexibility, they can have it -- because their employers understand that it's hard to be productive when you've got a sick kid at home or a childcare crisis. And talented, hard-working people should be able to say yes to a great new opportunity without worrying that their families will pay the price. Nearly half of all working parents surveyed say they've chosen to turn down a job not because they didn't want it, but because it would be too hard on their families. When that many members of our workforce are forced to choose between a job and their family, something's wrong.

Some businesses are realizing that family-friendly policies are a good business practice, because they help build loyalty and inspire workers to go the extra mile. JetBlue offers a flexible work-from-home plan for its customer-service representatives. Google increased its paid parental leave to five months -- and the rate of women leaving the company decreased by half. Cisco lets their employees telecommute as needed, which they estimate saves them over $275 million every year.

And there's a bigger economic case here, too. The strength of our economy rests on whether we're getting the most out of all of our nation's talent -- whether we're making it possible for all our citizens to contribute to our growth and prosperity. That's the key to staying competitive in the global economy. Right now, we're leaving too many people on the sidelines who have the desire and the capacity to work, but are held back by one obstacle or another. It's our job to remove those obstacles. That's what supporting working families is all about.

States are getting on board, too. California, Rhode Island and New Jersey give workers paid family leave. Connecticut offers paid sick days. So does New York City. Since I asked Congress to raise the minimum wage last year, 13 states have taken steps to raise it on their own.

But all Americans should get to benefit from these policies. That's why we need to see some action here in Washington.

I'll work with anyone -- Democrats or Republicans -- to increase opportunity for American workers. But in this year of action, whenever I can act on my own, I will.

Today, I'll sign a Presidential Memorandum directing every agency in the federal government to expand access to flexible work schedules, and giving employees the right to request them.

I'm calling on Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, because too many pregnant workers are forced to choose between their health and their job. They can get fired for taking too many bathroom breaks, or forced on unpaid leave just for being pregnant. It's inhumane, and it needs to stop.

And to help parents trying to get ahead, I'm directing my Secretary of Labor to invest $25 million in helping people who want to enroll in job-training programs, but don't currently have access to the childcare they need to do it.

I take this personally -- as the son and grandson of some strong women who worked hard to support my sister and me; as the husband of a brilliant woman who struggled to balance work and raising our young ladies when my job often kept me away; and as the father of two beautiful girls, whom I want to be there for as much as I possibly can -- and whom I hope will be able to have families and careers of their own one day.

We know from our history that our country does better when everybody participates; when everyone's talents are put to use; when we all have a fair shot. That's the America I believe in. That's the America I'll keep fighting for every day.


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