Julie Norris became a “proud single mother” in 2009, in a U.S. economic downturn that forced her to choose between having a home and keeping her 3-year-old business alive. The co-founder of Dandelion Communitea Café in Orlando, Florida, found a way to keep her company going by spending a few of those lean months sleeping on friends’ couches with her newborn daughter.
Today, Norris is back in her own home. Her health-conscious restaurant employs 29 people and generates about a million dollars a year in gross receipts, she says. When two of her workers recently gave birth, Norris made arrangements to enable them to care for their babies at work. What she couldn’t afford was to pay them off the clock.
“I wanted to offer paid leave,” she told International Business Times by phone, but said that would be a financially crippling proposition. The 35-year-old café owner says there need to be national policies to make it feasible for businesses like hers to be as family-friendly as they would like to be. “That would help change the cultural attitude toward workers,” she said.
A daylong Working Families Summit on Monday in Washington attempted to shift this cultural attitude. Joined by first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, President Barack Obama used the day to propose a raft of measures aimed at easing the demands of work and family life.
“They’re basically using the summit as a bully pulpit to try to extend these rights to all employees,” Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a nonprofit calling for more family-friendly work policies, told IBTimes.
The president used his executive power to instruct federal agencies on Monday to implement more flexible workplace schedules and called on Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require businesses to make reasonable accommodations for expecting moms and prohibit employers from forcing them to take unpaid leave.
“We’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t have it [paid maternity leave],” the president said Monday morning on CNN’s “New Day” “It doesn’t make any sense. There are a lot of countries that are a lot poorer than we are that also have it.”
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks the United States last for workplace maternity benefits (pdf) compared to other developed nations like Germany, Canada, the UK or The Netherlands. U.S. labor law is more lenient on employers than labor laws in other countries.
The federal government doesn’t require private companies to offer either paid or unpaid maternity leave, and smaller businesses can legally fire anyone who needs extended leaves of absence to deal with childbirth or family health crises.
“FMLA [the Family and Medical Leave Act] is only available to workers when companies have 50 or more employees, so about 40 percent of employers don’t need to comply,” said Bravo. “This is a big problem. It’s great to have FMLA, but if you can’t afford to take time off, or you work for a small company, then it doesn’t help.”
A study released this month by the National Partnership for Women & Families (pdf) found that states have done little to implement paid and unpaid family or medical leave in the absence of strong federal protections.
Norris says she supports efforts announced Monday by Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to study the feasibility of a federal paid-leave policy that would cover the private sector – a measure that would face immense resistance from business groups and the congressional lawmakers that act in their interests. But the small-business owner says she’s hopeful that the cultural tide is changing.
“For women – and men, too – the maternity period is so critical to that future citizen,” Norris said. “And now there are more women entering the workforce than ever before. Employers are increasingly having to respond to their expectations, especially from younger women, and I hope that that encourages Congress to act.”
Obama, free of seeking re-election, is using his second term to take executive action to promote increasing the federal minimum wage, to extend same-sex marriage rights and, in this case, call for federal agencies to adopt more flexible schedules for family-related leave. But the president’s power goes only so far, and with Congress divided on the federal government’s role in social policies that affect private employers, passing any legislation that increases the costs of doing business, or adds another entitlement program, is unlikely to happen anytime soon.