Work/Life Balance: SOLVED! By President Obama and a Coalition of Changemakers

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Today I missed hearing Michelle Obama speak on the topic of the eternal push-pull between work and family at the White House Summit on Working Families.

I missed her because I needed to be on a train from DC back to New York and my home and my son before my babysitter expires for the evening. This small sacrifice I had to make strikes me as being somehow perfect. I am sure Michelle would approve.

Fortunately, I got to hear dozens of other brilliant, well-versed speakers: Valerie Jarrett, Gloria Steinem, Maria Shriver, the U.S. chair of PriceWaterhouseCooper, a brief star turn from Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks, and oh, yes, the President of the United States (who took the stage after grabbing a meal at a local Chipotle with four members of the American workforce who were taking part in the summit).

President Obama met with American workers at Chipotle before appearing at the Working Families Summit, June 23, 2014President Obama had lunch with American workers at Chipotle before appearing at the Working Families Summit. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

But the message was much more important and memorable than even the stellar messengers: Work/life issues can be solved. They are being solved. And this change is happening because it is simply good business to give your employees the flexibility, family-friendly policies, and the wages they need to thrive.

It is a complex and varied set of challenges that make up what is loosely referred to as "workplace flexibility" issues, which often work together: family leave, sick leave, flexible hours, paid maternity leave, minimum wage, paid sick days, access to quality childcare and elder care, early enrichment and Pre-K for young children. And today, the president drew a clear line: “These aren’t perks,” he said. “These aren’t bonuses. These are basic needs that should be part of our bottom line for our society."

And it turns out that filling the basic needs of “a 21st century family,” as he called it, can help our economy grow. “The strength of our economy depends on this,” said the President. “We do better if we can field the entire team, not part of the team. Right now, too many people are on the sidelines because they are held back by one obstacle after another.”

A host of small- and large-business leaders took the stage to tell success stories that again and again reinforced that when a company takes care of its workers, the workers in turn are more productive, more loyal (meaning less expensive turnover), and more committed to providing their best work. Bob Moritz, the U.S. Chair of PriceWaterhouseCooper, which is the second-largest multinational accounting and professional services firm in the world, shared that when his company removed all barriers to personal time off (PTO)—meaning that employees can take whatever sick or personal days they need—the amount of time off taken by employees actually dropped.

State governments are starting to recognize a win-win situation and make the changes, too. As U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez put it:

"States are demonstrating and employers are demonstrating that you CAN do this, and that it's the RIGHT thing to do. And what they are doing is creating a competitive advantage for themselves and for their shareholders."

Labor Secretary Tom Perez at the White House Working Families SummitImage: U.S. Department of Labor

So far, three states —California, New Jersey and Rhode Island—have passed legislation supporting paid family leave. Thirteen states have voted to raise the minimum wage above the federal minimum. And Connecticut and New York City just passed mandated paid sick days into law, a major victory especially for low-wage workers, who need this benefit the most.

Perez went on to say that too many Americans who are working full-time still find themselves at or near the poverty line.

"We want to be a country where a fair day's work make's a fair day's wage. No one should work full time and not be able to make ends meet. We have such a changing universe here: The nature of family has changed, the nature of work has changed, but we’re still living with Leave it to Beaver rules. Too many people have to choose between the job they need and the family they love."

"This is not a Woman's Issue. It is a family issue, and an American issue. And it is a common-sense issue," said President Obama when he took the stage midday, before carefully outlining the pillars of this "common sense" policy approach:

  • Raising the minimum wage, so that no one who works full time is below the poverty level
  • Adopting paid maternity leave, so that the United States is no longer the only developed country in the world that does not offer paid leave. “This is a place where you do not want to be last,” said Obama.
  • Creating paid sick days for all workers, including restaurant workers and tip workers, “the exact people you don’t want bringing the flu to work,” said Obama, as well as sick leave policies
  • Creating quality, affordable childcare options
  • Adopting flexibility in work hours and work locations to support family care needs, whether for children or elder care
  • Signing into law wage equality for women, who now head up more households solo and make up two-thirds of the nation’s breadwinners or co-breadwinners

Secretary Perez framed these interrelated issues in a single idea, spoken in the words of an average American worker: "They say, 'I want to put food on the table and then I want to have the ability to eat at the table with my family.' The most important family value we have in America is time spent with your family."

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