Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Michelle Obama: Why paid sick days mean more innovation, productivity and health

Michelle Obama on work and family:

I’d like to just spend a few brief moments talking about today, an issue that I’ve talked a lot about, and that’s the issue of work-life balance. You know it: the constant struggle to meet our responsibilities both as employees, but also as breadwinners, and mothers and fathers. … And as the mother of two young girls it’s an issue that is particularly near and dear to my heart.

And while there’s certainly plenty of employers out there who recognize the value of good work-life policies, 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. You just can’t. When you have a job, you keep it; and you settle for the terms that you have because you know you’re blessed to even have a job. And many don’t have access, as a result, to good family leave policies or any kind of flexibility in the workplace at all. It’s just not possible. So they struggle to find affordable childcare and emergency childcare when their usual arrangements fall through, which they always do — right?

And believe it or not, today 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.

… 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. We all know this, right? 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.

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.

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