Obama shifting focus to working families

President Obama on Monday will order federal departments and agencies to launch a comprehensive review of their workplace practices with an eye toward improving flexibility for parents.

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In a presidential memorandum, Obama will order agencies “to expand flexible workplace policies to the maximum extent possible,” according to Betsey Stevenson, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

That effort will include directing agencies to establish standard procedures for evaluating requests for flexible work schedules and training supervisors on how to best respond to such requests. The government will also create a new “Workplace Flexibility Index” intended to measure agencies’ success in accommodating requests from workers grappling with childcare, ailing family members or medical conditions.

The president at a White House Summit on Working Families will also emphasize that federal workers have a so-called “right to request” a flexible work schedule without fear of retribution from their supervisors.

“I’ve got a strong successful wife who I remember being reduced to tears sometimes because she couldn’t figure out how to juggle everything she was doing,” Obama said Monday on CNN. “And I’ve got two daughters who I care about more than anything else in the world. So this is personal for me. And I think it’s personal for a lot of people. It’s not just a women’s issue, it’s a middle-class issue.”

The White House hopes that presidential endorsement will help “initiate conversations” between federal employees and their bosses on ways work schedules can be tailored to create better balance, according to Stephenson.

White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri called the moves a “good example of him using both the pen and the phone” to “help offer more opportunity” to working women.

Separately, Obama will call on Congress to support Sen. Bob Casey’s (D-Pa.) Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers across the country to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant employees. The bill also prevents employers from forcing pregnant women from taking leave if a reasonable accommodation could allow them to continue working.

As part of that effort, the Department of Labor will create a new website that will detail the rights of pregnant workers state by state.

But the president’s executive actions will not include an expansion of federal paid parental leave. Currently, the federal government does not offer paid maternity or paternity leave to its employees, although workers are eligible for 3 months of unpaid leave.

On Saturday, Obama said the U.S. was “way behind the times” as one of only a small number of developed countries that does not offer paid maternity leave.

“It’s time to change that,” Obama said in his weekly address. “A few states have acted on their own to give workers paid family leave, but this should be available to everyone, because all Americans should be able to afford to care for a family member in need.”

Presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett noted that Obama had implemented paid maternity leave for White House employees, and said doing so for the entire federal government would require legislation. The White House has endorsed a bill that would allow a month of paid parental leave for federal workers.

The president’s announcements will come at an all-day Working Family Summit co-hosted by the White House, Department of Labor, and liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

The president, first lady, vice president and Dr. Jill Biden are expected to speak at the event, alongside academic, media and business leaders including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Johnson and Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky and Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti.

Jarrett says the summit will also be an opportunity to highlight private-sector commitments to improve workplace flexibility. Labor unions have pledged to expand low-skilled workers’ access to their training programs, and a group of private companies is launching a working group to develop new ways to address their employees’ needs.

Republicans have suggested that the summit is little more than a political ploy designed to rally female votes ahead of the midterm elections. They say Democrats should adopt bills that passed the Republican-led House, including those that would repeal ObamaCare’s requirement that employers offer health insurance to all employees working more than 30 hours a week.

“If they were serious about accomplishing results for working families, they’d ask Harry Reid to step aside and work with Republicans on legislation aimed at helping women and working families that has already passed the House and is waiting in the Senate,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.

—Rebecca Shabad contributed to this report, which was updated at 7:31 a.m.