Are Michelle Obama and Corporations on the Same Page for Working Families?

Fri, May 15, 2009

Moms & Politics

We don’t need any more studies, discussions or navel-gazing about whether things need to change for working parents, especially working moms, when it comes to sick leave, flex-time or child care. Parents are struggling to manage family obligations and keep their employers happy. But corporate America still seems to think that whether and how to provide options for families need more examination. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that First Lady Michelle Obama won’t let them get away with it.

Michelle Obama speaks out often about her experiences as a working mother and her personal struggle with the all-elusive work/life balance. And she’s been quick to point out that even as challenging as it has been for her, she’s had it easy compared to many working moms who not only try to juggle it all, but have no safety net — meaning they get no paid sick time, and their employers don’t cut them any slack if they have to leave work early to pick up a sick child or have the sitter cancel at the last minute on a work day.

So on the one hand, I was encouraged when Michelle spoke recently the annual meeting of Corporate Voices for Working Families, but I have to wonder if this organization is something that will really move working families forward or whether it’s just window dressing to keep the masses quiet?

For example, in her remarks, Michelle said we need to “discuss” on-site quality childcare. But my question is this — what’s left to discuss? There’s really no question that everyone would benefit from more flexible policies –families win by not having to worry about losing their jobs to care for sick kids and employers win because their employees become more productive and more loyal.

Sure, it’s wonderful to have high profile and big name corporations apparently behind the efforts of CVWF. But what they are doing in their own corporate lives? Do all 50 corporate sponsors give their employees paid sick leave? On-site childcare? Flex-time for emergency school pick-ups and doctor appointments? Becky at Deep Muck Big Rake raises this tidbit in answer to that question — Marriott and other CVWF sponsors who claim they want to be more flexible are also members of the US Chamber of Commerce, which is actively lobbying against any increases in the Family and Medical Leave Act — changes that would significantly help working parents manage these issues. Forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical; it just seems like a bit of a disconnect to me.

Even when companies offer programs aimed at making things more manageable for working families, are employees encouraged to take advantage of these benefits or are there subtle forms of discouragement?

That’s really the elephant in the room, isn’t it — whether employees face unwanted consequences if they take advantage of these efforts designed to make things a little more manageable? I’m not the only on wondering. Ellen Galinsky, President of the Families and Work Institute, wrote at the Huffington Post:

At a private meeting that I attended with her following her speech, Mrs. Obama heard more about “what works” from two companies and asked us why these initiatives aren’t more widespread. If family-friendly programs and policies are so good for employers and employees, she asked, then why aren’t more companies providing them?

The people around the table suggested a number of reasons why more companies don’t provide flexibility and other work life programs. They said it can be more difficult to manage employees who are working flexibly, flexibility is seen as a perk, not a business strategy, and some programs can cost money.

Then a man in finance spoke up. He said, “Show me the dollars saved by these programs.” Although it wasn’t mentioned, if someone assumes that “presence equals productivity,” they dismiss even dollars and cents arguments.

Just because options are there, doesn’t mean that unspoken consequences of taking the leave don’t exist. When I was an attorney in private practice, I had plenty of paid sick leave and four weeks of vacation time each year. But even as a singleton with no child care obligations, it was made clear that there would be career and income consequences if I went on vacation for a month, let alone actually called in sick when I was under the weather.

So that’s why I have to wonder if these new efforts are just window dressing? Because, really, if employers had an epiphany that it made sense to be flexible, wouldn’t they just do it? We wouldn’t need another study or FLOTUS Michelle and her wonderful bully pulpit.

A real work/life balance solution needs to start with making time and resources available, but there also needs to be a major shift in how employers view and treat their employees who dare to take it. I have a feeling that shift will take a little longer than Michelle’s first four years in the White House.

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8 Responses to “Are Michelle Obama and Corporations on the Same Page for Working Families?”

  1. Professor J Says:

    “Show me the dollars saved by these programs.”

    That’s what it is all about, isn’t it?

  2. anniegirl1138 Says:

    I agree with the professor, money is bottom line. However, control is an issue too. Employers feel they have a right to micromanage all aspects of employees lives simply because they employ them.

    I worked for a school district that was actually very good to working parents, but they loathed job-sharing and part-timers, and they tolerated uneven application of the rules. In some schools principals were great and in others they were tyrants.

    This still gets back to the fact that women are the main caregivers and we are still supposed to “act like men” in the workplace even though there are differences that make this difficult to impossible. Until the world is ready to admit that what is good for the gander doesn’t serve the goose and that there is nothing wrong with that – just different – nothing will change on the scale it needs to.

  3. Palymama Says:

    I’ve nominated you for the highly “coveted” Splash Award. Given to those bloggers I most want to emulate!
    I look forward to seeing YOUR list of blogs to read. BTW – another thought provoking read, I like the fact you make me THINK.

  4. PunditMom Says:

    The big accounting firms seem to have figured this all out — flex time, day care, sick leave AND ongoing training & mentorship for parents who step off the track for a couple of years, so they will be up to speed when they return to the office. Because those accountants KNOW that it costs less money to do that than to have people leave and retrain people all over.

  5. Jeni Says:

    Sure there are great advantages to having quality daycare, on site, even better, but that’s going on the assumption all workers are employed by big corporations who can actually put something like that together for their employees. The trouble is not everyone -I have no clue what the numbers would be by comparison -work for big corporations who offer benefits like that. Too many work, as Mrs. Obama said, with no safety nets of any type. How are these programs of any benefit to the ones really in dire need of insurance, child care, even a reasonable living wage?

  6. April Says:

    I still haven’t read the book, but I did see the special that MomsRising put together where they visited certain companies (large and small) that had implemented more family-friendly policies, and they all said that they felt it helped their bottom line. If nothing else, they saved on turn-over from having happier employees. Of course, now is a terrible time to try and implement such changes with so many people out of work. I hope that she at least makes some progress in the next 4 years.

  7. Becky Says:

    The response at the private meeting? From MEMBER COMPANIES of this “organization” put together to “promote what’s good for working families.” And Ellen Galinsky? She’s on its board of trustees.

    Actually, the organization was put together to promote what it deems best for businesses. It speaks in a “voice” loud enough and promotes “benefits” so it can avoid legislation that would actually benefit working families.

    For? Lactation rooms (and increasing sales for advertiser that makes breast pumps).

    Against? FMLA, SCHIP, paid sick leave, paid vacation and other things employees (whether in “working families” or not) desire.

    Does it have any individual mothers and fathers in working families on its member roll? Nope.

  8. PunditMom Says:

    Palymama, Thanks! What is that? Clicked on your link but it didn’t go anywhere.

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