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Obama seeks to bridge class divide on workplace woes

President Obama Hosts Summit On Working FamiliesPresident Obama Hosts Summit On Working Families

President Barack Obama spoke on Monday about the importance of family-friendly work policies to a standing room-only crowd ranging from an hourly employee at Popeyes to the chief executives of Goldman Sachs and global professional services firm EY.

The White House Summit on Working Families aimed to bring together blue-collar advocates for a higher minimum wage and paid leave with highly compensated professional workers who seek greater workplace flexibility. But the scene of union steelworkers rubbing elbows with CEOs presented in stark relief the challenge of aligning such disparate groups.

To encourage change in the workplace, the administration is seeking to invoke working-class stories of struggle all while making use of the immense influence of Fortune 100 corporations that see flexible work and benefits as a key way to attract and retain the most talented workers in the world.

The White House threw major star power behind the event, with speakers including President Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, and even actress Christina Hendricks, who plays a single working mom on the television show Mad Men.

“Work gives us a sense of place and dignity as well as income and it is critically important. But family is also the bedrock of our lives and we don’t want a society in which folks are having to make a choice between those two things,” Obama said. “This isn’t a women’s issue, it’s a family issue and an American issue. These are commonsense issues.”

Faced with a Congress that has refused to act on his administration’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage, the president has found creative ways to implement a family-friendly agenda on his own. In conjunction with the summit, President Obama expanded flexible work options for federal employees, and the Labor Department proposed extending family leave rights to same-sex spouses, announced $25 million in child care grants for workers in job retraining programs, and unveiled grants for states interested in offering paid leave programs. A slew of administration initiatives on worker pay are already in motion, notably raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, from the current $7.25.

Throughout the summit, administration officials shared their own stories of work-family conflict, such as when Michelle Obama arrived for a job interview with infant Sasha Obama along for the ride in her car seat, or when Vice President Joe Biden skipped Senate votes to be home with his young family for dinner.

Flexible work policies at large companies including JetBlue and Cisco were touted, and backed up by research showing that flexible work makes employees more productive, loyal, and saves money on everything from office space to workforce turnover. PwC Chairman Bob Moritz said that after his firm gave unlimited paid sick leave to its workforce, the average number of sick days actually went down.

The organizers also shared stories from the other end of the spectrum, such as the mom without paid leave who kept putting off pediatrician visits until her daughter ended up with permanent hearing loss, or the four children who died in a fire at a lightly regulated Texas home daycare. Biden acknowledged the diversity of experiences.

“You’re among the lucky ones,” Biden told the audience. “You’re among those who have options, mostly. You’re the ones who generally make enough money that you can get some help in caring for your children or your parents.”

Obama, Biden, Perez, and other officials hammered home the administration’s position: that all families need a living wage, high-quality child care, paid leave, and workplace flexibility. But those four goals can come into conflict with each other, threatening to pull apart support for the overall agenda.

Take child care. In more than 60% of households with children, every adult works for pay, making child care a necessity. On the one hand, speakers including SEIU President Mary Kay Henry advocated for higher wages, improved benefits, and more protections for elder and child care workers, who are often paid under the table without employer contributions to Social Security or Medicare. “Can we imagine home care workers and child care workers in this society being the auto workers and steel workers of the last century?” Henry said. “Child care workers are building the brains of the next generation so that we can be globally competitive.”

At the same time, others spoke about the prohibitively high cost of childcare for most working families, which tops in-state college tuition in 31 states. That price tag often forces one parent—usually the mother—out of the workforce, or keeps her underemployed. On average, families spend $18,000 a year on child care, more than food and housing, totaling about 18 % of household income, according to Care.com.

“Workers today struggle to balance work and family and as a result are choosing to work in different jobs, even different careers, and sometimes not to work at all because making it all fit together is just too hard,” said summit speaker Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, noting that 50% of parents have turned down a job because of the toll it would take on family. “The cost of losing women from work is growing every single day.”

Families would face a shorter window for full-time childcare if the White House’s proposals were adopted. With longer paid maternity and paternity leaves, parents could put infants into non-family care at an older age. And if Obama’s proposed universal pre-kindergarten becomes a reality—especially at the lower rungs of the economic ladder—that would move children out of costly private daycare centers sooner.

Stevenson and other Obama administration officials painted an appealing and logical picture of the America of the future, where all workers earn a living wage; can find affordable and high-quality child care and elder care; receive paid leave for family emergencies; and have the flexibility to meet their work responsibilities around children’s school events or other family priorities. They argue that a more financially secure populace will bring increased prosperity to all. But if one piece of that puzzle drops out, the whole scene could turn ugly.

Already, states and private companies are acting piecemeal in the absence of congressional accord. Advocates for domestic workers have helped push higher standards through four state legislatures, with more in the works. Similarly, 13 states have raised their minimum wage rates. Meanwhile, the city of Seattle’s new $15-an-hour minimum wage has already come under legal attack. Gap Inc. agreed to pay all of its workers a minimum of $9 an hour nationwide, and it is encouraging employees to wear white this week in celebration. And states have implemented their own paid leave programs for new parents, including California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, following the lead of corporations that voluntarily offer such benefits.

There were plenty of applause lines throughout the day, but the loudest cheers consistently came around mentions of the minimum wage and paid leave. “It’s not just a moment; it’s a movement,” White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett said on the morning of the summit.

It’s unclear if the movement can continue to hold the extreme ends of the socioeconomic spectrum together, or whether the interests of low-wage and high-income workers—and their employers—will splinter the administration’s ambitious agenda.