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First Lady Calls for Paid Family Leave, Paid Sick Days

January 15, 2010

In a speech Thursday at the Department of Labor, First Lady Michelle Obama made a forceful call for new policies that value families at work – including paid sick days and family leave. Describing the challenges families are facing today – and challenges she has known first-hand – the First Lady declared these policy solutions as “not just niceties for women but as necessities for every single working American.” Below are excerpts from her remarks:

“While there’s certainly plenty of employers out there who recognize the value of good work-life policies,” she said, “many people in this country just aren’t as fortunate to work with those employers. And with the job market the way it is right now, many folks can’t afford to be picky… And many don’t have access, as a result, to good family leave policies or any kind of flexibility in the workplace at all….

[T]oday roughly 40 percent of private-sector employees work at companies that don’t offer a single day of paid sick leave. Not a single day. And I think that reflects a larger problem, that for too long we as a society have viewed policies that help people balance work and family as somehow a special benefit maybe to women who shoulder that, rather than an essential part of a workplace that can benefit everyone in the workplace.

To this day there’s still the perception that workers who need time off to care for a sick parent, or who want a more flexible schedule so they can go to the potluck or the play or the parent-teacher conference, are somehow less committed or less desirable. There’s this idea that workplaces that accommodate these needs are destined to be less profitable, less productive somehow.

But we now know that that’s just simply not the case. There’s a lot of evidence out there from companies who’ve implemented really innovative processes to help families. We now know that these kind of policies can actually make employees more productive…. Because instead of spending all day at work worrying about what’s happening at home, they have the support that they need to concentrate on their jobs. And it makes a huge difference in terms of productivity. Just mental health comfort and stability helps workers be better. We know that.

And that’s why we need to change the way we look at these issues so that our workplaces can catch up to the realities of our lives. It’s time we viewed family-friendly policies as not just niceties for women but as necessities for every single working American — men and women — because more and more men are shouldering that same kind of burden. And that’s good, but that’s new.

Staying home to care for a sick child or taking an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment shouldn’t mean risking one’s job. That shouldn’t be the tradeoff. People shouldn’t have to choose between taking the time they need after giving birth, for example, or adopting a child, and keeping that job that they need to support the child they just had. That shouldn’t be the choice.

Things like paid family leave and sick days and affordable childcare should be the norm, not the exception. That’s why we think it’s important to highlight companies that are embracing these policies, ones that are experimenting with things like flex time and telecommuting and focusing on performance and output rather than face time. That’s why the President and Secretary Solis have spoken out in favor of the Healthy Families Act, which would let millions more working Americans earn up to seven days a year of paid sick time to care for themselves and their families. That would be innovative and new. But we are happy that we have a President and a Secretary of the Department of Labor who had the vision and the foresight to see that this now needs to happen.

But the administration also knows that we essentially have to put our money where our mouths are, so the administration is working to practice what we preach and make the federal government a model of what we’re asking others to do. From expanding telework options to providing emergency childcare and affordable day care, we need to be implementing all of those ideas throughout the federal government….

[T]here’s a lot of work to do — as we all know, as the President has said. He said it before he took the oath of office — change is important, change is hard, and change takes time….But as one of Secretary Solis’s predecessors, President Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins once pointed out that most of our problems — and this is a quote — “have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage.”

That’s what we need today as well. …And all of us, in both government and the private sector, will need to come up with new ideas, try out new approaches, and rely on our courage and our common sense to guide us along the way. …I am confident that we will meet these challenges.”

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