In a push to make the U.S. workplace more accommodating to employees with families, President Barack Obama on Monday directed federal agencies to step up efforts to give workers more leeway in determining their schedules. Obama, who is seeking to boost Democratic fortunes before the midterm elections in November, has been urging Congress to back legislation that makes workplaces more family friendly.
The president issued a memorandum requiring federal agency heads to expand flexible workplace policies as much as possible, with an aim to make it easier for workers to take care of family needs and to enable more people to find and keep jobs.
“The bottom line is [that] 21st-century families deserve 21st-century workplaces. And our economy demands them, because it’s going to help us compete. It’s going to help us lead. And that means paid family leave, especially paid parental leave,” he said.
The announcements were made as part of the White House Summit on Working Families, where Obama spoke Monday afternoon to promote policies such as raising the minimum wage and expanding access to childcare. He also made it clear that federal workers may request a flexible work arrangement without fear it will subject them to negative consequences, regardless of whether the request is granted.
The summit comes in a midterm election year focused in many respects on women voters, and the White House has been devoting star power to the event, with even a surprise appearance by a celebrity to echo Obama's criticism of "Mad Men" era policies in today's workplace. Christina Hendricks, who plays single mom Joan on the 1960s AMC drama, said Monday, "In the 21st century the only place for a story like Joan's should be on TV."
Obama pushed for additional protections for pregnant women in the workplace by urging Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would prevent discrimination against expecting mothers. He also directed the Department of Labor to make $25 million available to provide childcare for workers in training programs.
He also highlighted family leave policies that major employers like Deloitte and Google have instituted, such as paid family leave.
“There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us,” Obama noted Monday.
The administration last week released a report showing that the U.S. could boost its sagging labor force participation rate and get more people back to work if more businesses had policies such as paid maternity and paternity leave.
“A few states have acted on their own to give workers paid family leave, but this should be available to everyone, because all Americans should be able to afford to care for a family member in need,” Obama said in his weekly address on Friday.
California, Rhode Island and New Jersey have paid leave systems, but it is unclear how Obama would fund a national system. He has not endorsed legislation that would create one funded by a payroll tax, and he pledged in his 2008 presidential campaign not to raise taxes on families making under $250,000 a year.
And because he is faced with a Republican-led House of Representatives, his chances of passing legislation are slight. He reiterated on Monday that he would pursue his agenda through unilateral actions such as executive orders and official memos while he is “waiting for Congress.”
Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett said in a conference call with reporters Sunday that the president is trying to start a national conversation to explore the issue.
"Cost is an issue for any federal program, and we need to make sure we do this in a way where we are not raising taxes on middle-class families," she said. "But we also know what a good investment in our workforce it would be if they had paid leave, and that investment will pay great returns."
Al Jazeera with wire services