White House Summit on Working Families: A first step in the right direction

by Ailen Arreaza & Bethany Robertson

This past Monday, the White House held a Summit on Working Families to discuss issues ranging from paid maternity leave to work flexibility to childcare. The United States is far behind every other industrialized nation when it comes to issues of work-life balance and we are one of only three other countries in the world that doesn’t offer guaranteed paid maternity leave to new mothers.

As a working mom myself, I’m glad to see these issues getting more attention from national leaders – it’s been a long time coming. Like too many other parents around the country, I know, first hand, the toll these flawed policies can have on a family.

When my first son was born, I used all of my sick and vacation time to cover the three months I took off work to recover from birth and bond with my baby. It wasn’t ideal, but at least my family didn’t suffer financially. By the time my second child came into the world, my sick and vacation time were depleted. I had to take unpaid leave and my husband and I were forced to dip into our savings to pay the bills. It took us well over a year to recover.

Still, I’m lucky. I know that my situation as a middle-class mom with a working partner and a savings account is privileged. What happens to the single mother? The one working minimum wage? The one with a job that doesn’t offer sick leave?

The birth of a baby is supposed to be the most wonderful time in a woman’s life, but due to our country’s retrograde work-life policies it can have devastating financial consequences. And beyond financial stress, researchers are finding that whether or not parents are able to stay home after the birth of baby actually has demonstrable effects on the health outcomes for those children. Time off post-childbirth isn’t a nice-to have; it’s a must have.

For years, groups like The National Partnership for Women & Families, Family Values @ Work, 9 to 5, and MomsRising have been beating the drum on these issues. They have led the charge on work-life balance and mobilized thousands around flexibility, paid leave and affordable childcare options — and there have been some notable wins of late especially around work-family issues like paid sick days. The momentum and energy at Monday’s summit builds on all of the incredible advocacy work to date.

So what happens now? There are some concrete items coming out of the summit aimed at supporting families, such as:

  • A new tool in the works from the Department of Labor aimed to reduce pregnancy discrimination, which has been on the rise.

  • An extension of workplace protections to all families, including same-sex married couples – especially important for families seeking to take FMLA leave

  • $25 million in new funding to help workers seeking job training to overcome childcare barriers

But from my view, we’re still a long way from the the most transformative shift needed to support our families: paid family leave. How do we make sure that the next generation of parents isn’t plagued with these same difficult choices? It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight. In her speech at the summit, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “The ones who are coming into the workforce now are the ones who can push for a new paradigm. But it’s going to take time.”

Time, and all of us. Building on the amazing advocacy work that’s gotten us this far, things will change when we, as parents, get informed about the issues, get active on policy campaigns, and raise our voices to say that the status quo isn’t good for our country, isn’t good for our businesses, and certainly isn’t good for our families.

 



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