Obama: Workplace flexibility and unpaid leave not 'women's issues'

Obama: Workplace flexibility and unpaid leave not 'women's issues'
President Obama takes part in a White House summit on working families. These aren't "women's issues," the president said. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty Images)

President Obama called Monday for paid leave for couples with newborns, arguing that the U.S. should join other industrialized countries in adopting flexible workplace policies.

At a daylong White House summit on workplace issues, Obama urged Congress and employers to adopt family-friendly policies, insisting that paid leave and quality child care are basic needs for today’s workforce and good for business, not “frills.”

Women make up more than half the skilled workforce and are often the primary breadwinners in their families. But Obama dismissed the idea that workforce policies aimed at helping families are a "women's issue," arguing instead that men should – and, often, do -- care about it just as much.

“All too often, these issues are thought of as women’s issues, which I guess means you can scoot 'em aside a little bit,” he said. “But anything that makes life harder for women makes life harder for families.”

The White House gathering, which included corporate executives, lawmakers and senior officials, was convened by the administration to focus attention on Obama's economic agenda ahead of November's mid-term congressional elections.

During an address interrupted repeatedly by applause and cheers, Obama called again for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a proposal stalled in Congress. He said the wage hike would benefit nearly 28 million Americans -- many with young children and many women in low-paying jobs -- and could help close the gender pay gap and raise many families out of poverty.

Though some companies offer paid family leave, the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act only requires that employers provide unpaid leave for medical and family reasons.

Obama praised California, Rhode Island and New Jersey for mandating the leave. But he has not endorsed legislation that would require paid leave for families with newborns


He urged Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to protect women from discrimination in the workplace.

Obama also announced several administration changes that he can enact without the help of lawmakers. He pledged to sign a presidential memorandum that directs federal agencies to adopt “right to request” policies, allowing workers to adjust their work schedules without fear of retaliation. And he said he’d direct the Department of Labor to make quality child care available to people enrolling in job-training programs.

In so doing, Obama continued his strategy of using administrative powers to bring about small-scale change in areas where Congress could make a bigger difference.

Workplace fairness is something lawmakers can’t ignore, Obama said. In the 21st century, he said, “families deserve 21st Century workplaces.”

“As long as Congress refuses to act on these policies, we need you to raise your voices,” he said. “Don’t talk about how you support families -- actually support families.”