The White House Gets It—How About the Rest of the Nation?

By Kyla Bender-Baird

As the economy came toppling down on us last year, one of the first things to get sidelined was workplace flexibility and policies supporting greater work-life balance. Some say that with the economy struggling to recover, now is not the time to talk about so-called perks like telecommuting or flexible hours. But the White House and its top officials couldn’t disagree more.

Government officials, labor organizers, private sector leaders, and top researchers gathered at the White House last Wednesday for a special forum on workplace flexibility. The forum was bookended by remarks from both Michelle and Barack Obama. As Valerie Jarrett, Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, stated in her opening remarks, the presence of the Obamas at the forum signaled the importance of workplace flexibility. “Obamas get to work from home. So should you, they say,” was the title of an article in the Christian Science Monitor covering the forum.

Michelle Obama said that her number one resource at the White House for maintaining work-life balance was the grandmother living upstairs. “We all need one of those,” she only half-way joked. Michelle Obama shared her personal struggles with her desire to always perform 120% at work while caring for two young daughters. In one instance, she could not find last minute child care and brought her baby girl with her on a job interview. “Many folks can’t be picky about the jobs they take,” she said. They struggle to find affordable child care or someone to care for an aging family member. But it doesn’t have to be this hard. When asked how the federal government can become a key partner in bringing about greater workplace flexibility, Ellen Bravo, executive director of the Families Values at Work Consortium, said

For many workers, especially low-wage, flexibility means ‘you’re free to quit,’ leave means ‘if you leave, don’t come back.’ The greatest inflexibility is being fired for having a sick kid, or being allowed to take leave but given no way to afford it. Government can provide a floor, to guarantee some flexibility for all. I applaud those best practice employers in the room. We need you join with us in calling for a level playing field.

The federal government is putting its money where its mouth is by supporting workplace flexibility legislation such as the Healthy Families Act, which provides paid sick leave. Secretary Solis also reported a new competition the Department of Labor is financing which provides incentives to states that adopt paid leave—following the example of California. And John Barry of the Office of Personnel Management announced a new initiative the federal government is undertaking to expand its own workplace flexibility practices. “Raising the next generation is the single most important job we have,” concluded President Obama. “We need to make this job easier.”

To learn more, click here to read the recently released Council of Economic Advisors report, Work-Life Balance and the Economics of Workplace Flexibility. Also, check out this MomsRising campaign launched in response to the forum.

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