The plight of working parents forced to choose between taking unpaid leave to care for a sick child or paying the bills will be presented to President Barack Obama on Monday, as the White House hosts it first summit to address the workplace policies.
The event, which follows Obama's State of the Union promise to do away with employment practices that “belong in a Mad Men episode," will also turn attention to inadequate maternity and paternity leave — an issue in which the United States lags woefully behind other countries.
Among those attending the event will be Arlyssa Heard, an activist and working mother of two from Detroit, Michigan. She said she felt compelled to travel to Washington, D.C., to attend the summit and make her voice heard.
“My biggest thing is having paid sick days for families that need it," she said. “I consider myself out on the battlefield."
Her comments echo that of Obama himself, who in January’s State of the Union address said: “A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship — and you know what, a father does too.”
Heard will be among those hoping that those lofty words translate into action, and a change in workplace legislation.
The former contract worker has a 19-year-old son with sickle cell anemia who needs frequent hospital care. She has firsthand experienced with the dilemma faced by parents needing to take time off to care for a child.
“I had to decide, do we pay one bill or buy groceries for the week? For me, that kind of decision-making is not something any family should experience,” she said.
The summit will also address another perceived failing in U.S. employment policy: inadequate maternity and paternity leave.
The U.S. is one of just three countries in the world — the others being Papua New Guinea and Oman — that has no statutory paid maternity leave.
As such, only 12 percent of U.S. employees have access to family leave to care for a newborn or sick family member, and about 40 percent of private sector workers do not have a single paid sick day to cover for health emergencies, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. The percentage of workers who lack access to a short-term medical disability leave rises to 63 percent.
Many of the perceived policy gaps date back to the 1930s. They reflect a time when women had not yet entered the workplace in large numbers and were expected to take on the greater share of child-rearing duties.
“What we’ve seen is the U.S. lagging behind with the rest of the world in that respect,” said Emily Martin, vice president at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.
Monday’s summit will be hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress. The latter, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, published a report in April that found U.S. women’s labor force participation lags behind that of other industrial nations, a situation likely due to policies that haven’t caught up with the increasingly important economic role of female employees. Their contributions have accounted for a GDP increase of 11 percent since 1979, according to the report.
“The hallmark of being a responsible parent is the thing that can cost you your paycheck or job. It’s untenable, it’s bad for families, and it’s bad for the economy," said Ellen Bravo, women’s rights activist and leader of Family Values @ Work, a campaign of activists in 15 states that strives for equality in the workplace. "It's really embarrassing."
For Martin, equal pay and wage discrimination also need ample attention at the summit. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, and women of color make even less, according to the NWLC. Black women and Hispanic women take home just 64 cents and 54 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by white men.
The White House has begun to address some of the issues faced by working families. “No one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty,” Obama noted in his State of the Union Address.
Accordingly, in April the president signed an executive order that raised the minimum wage of federal contract workers to $10.10.
But much more work remains to be done, rights activists say. More than two-thirds of workers earning $10.10 per hour or less are women, and since the economic recovery, 35 percent of women’s job gains have been in the ten largest low-wage industries, compared to 18 percent of men’s, Martin said.
Workplace discrimination against pregnant women and affordable child care are also topics on the agenda of activists attending the summit. In an attempt to meet some of their demands, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, introduced federal legislation in January that would provide for paid medical and family leave to all workers. But the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act is unlikely to pass a bipartisan Congress.
Meanwhile, individual companies are beginning to change workplace policies. Walmart, which employs more women than any other U.S. company, now offer exemptions for pregnant workers from duties such as heavy lifting. The move has been welcomed by women’s rights advocates.