Almost with a sense of embarrassment, President Obama is trying to lift the U.S. out of the ignominious distinction of being the only industrialized nation on the globe that doesn’t mandate paid leave for mothers of newborns.
The president is pushing the issue in media interviews and during a daylong summit the White House is holding today with businesses, using the star power of celebrities to do the advocacy work.
“Only three countries in the world report that they don’t offer paid maternity leave — three — and the United States is one of them,” Obama said in his weekly radio address. “It’s time to change that. 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’s hope is that he can pressure Republicans to support some of his initiatives to help working families—in addition to publicizing Republican intransigence on these issues crucial to American women as the midterm elections approach.
“We’ve got, unfortunately I think, a faction of one party that says no to everything. And maybe the summit can highlight that this is not a partisan issue. This is a middle class issue. This is an American issue,” the president told CBS News.
At the summit, Obama is scheduled to issue a presidential memorandum directing federal agencies to step up efforts to expand flexible workplace policies, and report on best practices and any barriers to implementation. The White House said the memorandum will also “make clear” that federal workers can request a flexible work arrangements without fear of retaliation and will direct agencies to create procedures employers can use to address requests.
Obama got personal, talking about being raised by his single mother and grandmother.
“Both of them were strong, hard-working women. But they experienced the glass ceiling. They dealt with childcare crises,” he said.
He said the same was true of his wife, first lady Michelle Obama, when he was off campaigning or out of town.
“Now I’ve got two daughters. So I want to make sure that they’re able to balance family life and the workplace… or at least, their choices will be better than some of the choices that exist before,” he said. “The idea of this working summit is to really lift up conversations that every family all across America has every day.”
While acknowledging that progress has been made— women have entered careers that would not have been open to them a generation ago—Obama said women are still too often burdened with the task of child rearing and making less money than men.
“Discrimination is still taking place. And so part of what we want to do is to lift up the possibilities of changes in federal policy. But we don’t want to restrict it to just federal laws. We also want to show that companies on their own initiative will discover that it’s good business sense for them to take advantage of — or to offer workers — more flexibility on the job,” he said.
The White House is cleverly using actress Christina Hendricks at today’s summit. Hendricks plays single mom Joan on the AMC television drama “Mad Men,” which delves into the issues plaguing women in the 1960s.
“In the 21st century, the only place for a story like Joan’s should be on TV,” Hendricks said in a statement.
Three states—California, Rhode Island and New Jersey—have a system of paid leave. Though Obama hasn’t said how the nation would pay for a national system, the White House wants 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,” presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said yesterday in a conference call with reporters. “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.”
The 1993 Family Medical Leave Act mandates that employers provide unpaid leave for medical and family reasons, but not paid leave.