Last week’s White House Summit on Working Families – hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor, and the Center for American Progress – served both as a pitch to employers to adopt more family-friendly policies, and as a push for policies that require all employers to evolve for 21st-century realities. Wages, paid leave, flexibility, and caregiving were major topics in the day-long event, and speaker after speaker returned to the same themes. I was honored to attend the event, and left it feeling hopeful that we’ll keep seeing improvements in workplace policies – perhaps first at the level of individual employers, cities and states (where we’ve already seen progress), and eventually at the federal level.

“No one in this country should work a full-time job and have to live in poverty,” said Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, who has been pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage. As for why more workers need access to paid sick, medical, and family leave, he told the crowd, “No one should have to choose between the job they need and the family they love.”

Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, described the way her boss’s flexibility helped her to balance work and family when her children were young – but, she noted, many US workers don’t have access to paid leave or flexible schedules. “I won the boss lottery, but you shouldn’t have to,” she told the audience.

Vice President Joe Biden picked up on that theme. He described how he struggled to balance his job as a US Senator with raising his sons after his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash. He told the crowd that he made 8,000 round trips between Washington, DC and Delaware so he could be home before his children went to bed, and that he skipped procedural votes to make it to parent-teacher conferences and his kids’ games and debates. It was hard for him and challenging for others like him – but, he noted “we’re the lucky ones,” with good salaries and some schedule flexibility. It’s even harder for those whose struggle to make their paychecks cover expenses and don’t have flexible schedules or paid leave.

Another theme that speakers echoed was the idea that the US economy has changed, but workplace policies have failed to keep up with the changes. Where it used to be the norm for households to have one breadwinner and one parent who stayed home and cared for children, that’s not a workable option for most US households today. (And, I’d add, many low-income households didn’t have that option even in the Leave it To Beaver days.) As the average lifespan increases, many households are also faced with responsibilities to care for aging parents and young children simultaneously.

In his remarks, President Obama also shared his family’s story of challenges in balancing jobs and family, and repeated that they still found it hard even though they were among the more fortunate workers. And then he said this, to cheers and thunderous applause:

And every day, I hear from parents all across the country. They are doing everything right — they are working hard, they are living responsibly, they are taking care of their children, they’re participating in their community — and these letters can be heartbreaking, because at the end of the day it doesn’t feel like they’re getting ahead. And all too often, it feels like they’re slipping behind. And a lot of the time, they end up blaming themselves thinking, if I just work a little harder — if I plan a little better, if I sleep a little bit less, if I stretch every dollar a little bit farther — maybe I can do it. And that thought may have crossed the minds of some of the folks here from time to time.

Part of the purpose of this summit is to make clear you’re not alone. Because here’s the thing: These problems are not typically the result of poor planning or too little diligence on the parts of moms or dads, and they cannot just be fixed by working harder or being an even better parent. All too often, they are the results of outdated policies and old ways of thinking. Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage — these are not frills, they are basic needs. They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society. That’s what we’re striving for.

The President noted that there are countries that have figured out how to do childcare well and affordably, suggesting we could follow their lead and make it so decent childcare doesn’t cost more than in-state college tuition (something that’s currently the case in 31 states). And, he noted, “Many women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth. Now, that’s a pretty low bar. You would think [that’s something] that we should be able to take care of.”

Economic impacts

In her speech, Jill Biden – who is a community-college professor as well as wife of Vice President Biden – pointed out that employees can be more productive if they’re not worried about childcare or their aging parents. Several small-business owners or members of upper management at large corporations, described the productivity and loyalty they experienced from employees as a result of offering higher wages, paid leave, and flexible scheduling.

I was also delighted that Makini Howell, owner of Seattle’s Plum Bistro described the public-health motivation behind her decision to support the city’s paid-sick-leave law: “I don’t want to serve you a cheap contagious flu with your sweet potato fries.” She and other business representatives also noted that demonstrating trust in employees not to abuse sick-leave policies tends to inspire trustworthy behavior.

Speakers also addressed the ways that family-unfriendly workplaces can hurt the economy as a whole, as well as individual businesses. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) pointed out that 70% of the US economy is consumer-driven, and low wages hurt consumer spending. Betsey Stevenson, a member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, noted that when trained, educated workers drop out of the workforce because they can’t meet their families needs otherwise, that’s a big loss to our economy.

The workers who drop out of the workforce for caregiving purposes are most often women, but several speakers stressed that family-friendly policies help men, too, and that this is not a zero-sum game. Earlier in the month, a White House Summit on Working Fathers addressed this sometimes-overlooked topic; Scott Behson collected some of the memorable quotes from the event at his Fathers, Work and Family blog.

Policy solutions

The event showcased large and small employers that have chosen to go above and beyond what the law requires (which, in the case of federal law, isn’t much), and offer their workers higher wages, paid leave, and the flexibility they need to balance job and family responsibilities. They spoke about “the business case” for family-friendly policies –or, what I imagine much of the rest of the world considers to be commonsense policies. Another route to higher wages and better leave policies is unionization; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in her panel discussion that no one has done more for equal pay than organized labor.

Even as speakers encouraged other businesses to adopt these high-road practices, there was also a recognition that we can’t just wait for all employers to follow suit, or for workplaces to become unionized – this is an urgent problem that needs policy solutions. Workers should have access to livable wages, paid leave, and flexibility even if they don’t “win the boss lottery.”

In addition to Secretary Perez’s call for a higher minimum wage, President Obama urged Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers to make reasonable accommodations for women with pregnancy-related medical needs, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, aimed at reducing the gender wage gap. In a session on caregiving, Nancy Duff Campbell of the National Women’s Law Center added a call for the Strong Start for America’s Children Act to increase access to affordable, high-quality childcare, preschool, and pre-kindergarten.

Two bills that I was surprised not to hear mentioned (although it’s possible they came up in breakout sessions) were the Healthy Families Act and the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act (FAMILY Act). The Healthy Families Act would allow workers in businesses with 15 or more employees to earn up to seven days a year of paid sick time, while the FAMILY Act would set up a social-insurance system to enable workers, regardless of employer size or job tenure, to get a portion of their pay while taking medical or family leave for serious health conditions.

The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb suggests a disturbing reason why President Obama isn’t endorsing the FAMILY Act: The proposed social-insurance system relies on an additional payroll tax of 0.2 percent to fund replacements of a portion of workers’ salaries when they’re taking medical or family leave. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, a worker earning the US median wage would pay an extra $65 per year into the system; the figure would be higher for higher-income workers, but in any case it would be a very modest contribution in exchange for access to benefits that could mean the difference between paying the rent and getting evicted for those who need to take time off to address a serious health condition or care for a new child.

Goldfarb notes, though, that President Obama made a 2008 campaign pledge to not raise taxes on families earning less than $250,000, and the FAMILY Acy would entail a tax increase on all workers. It seems that it would be worth violating a campaign promise in order to pass a law that would do so much good for so many people – especially those living paycheck to paycheck. Maybe President Obama would have more to say on the subject if the law were to pick up more support in Congress.

With Congressional gridlock as the current norm, the real hope for change seems to be at the state and local levels – and perhaps national action will eventually follow. Cities and states across the country are considering, or have already passed, laws and ballot measure to raise wages and require employers to offer paid sick leave; Rhode Island recently became the third state (following California and New Jersey) to establish a social-insurance system for paid caregiver leave. A Center for American Progress poll conducted earlier this month found that 71% of respondents, including 62% of Republican respondents, support paid family leave for workers with a sick child or immediate family member.

In a conversation with Robin Roberts, First Lady Michelle Obama told the summit audience, “The numbers are on our side – more and more people are realizing that this is an issue for everybody.” Later, she said, “We have to help elected officials understand just how important these issues are.”