The Push for Paid Leave

Why Black mothers stand to gain the most from flexible workplaces.

I often reflect on the challenges of raising my daughter as a single mom. I struggled mightily to fulfill my responsibilities in demanding jobs while ensuring my daughter's every need was being met.

Most days it seemed as if I were juggling a thousand balls in the air simultaneously, and the anxiety I felt was, at times, simply overwhelming. But I was one of the lucky ones. All of my employers provided generous paid leave and paid sick leave. My compensation was equal to that of my male peers.

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I had extraordinary, reliable and affordable child care. And from the time my daughter was 2 years old, my employers have all been supportive of my need for workplace flexibility. I have no doubt that their help allowed me to excel at work and enabled me to create a nurturing environment for my child.

However, every day, far too many parents face an impossible choice: bonding with their newborn babies and caring for themselves or their families, or earning essential wages and safeguarding job security. Forty-three million private-sector workers in America lack access to a single day of paid sick leave, a problem that disproportionately affects women of color. In fact, we are the only advanced country that does not guarantee every worker paid leave.

Forty percent of working mothers are now the sole or primary breadwinners, and 55 percent of African-American families are headed by a single mother—compared with 21 percent of White households. Women still earn 77 cents on the dollar compared with men, and African-American women earn just 64 cents on the dollar compared with men.

Making sure people can balance their work and family responsibilities effectively is critical not only for American workers but also for our businesses and the economy. Growing evidence proves that family-friendly policies, including paid leave, paid sick days, equal pay, workplace flexibility and affordable child care, boost employee productivity, reduce turnover and increase profitability in the private sector.

In June 2014, in order to highlight the importance of family-friendly workplace policies, the President held the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families. We brought together workers, business and union leaders, elected officials, economists and family advocates to discuss research that indicates the importance of updated workplace policies, and we shared the best practices from around the country.

Since the summit, President Obama has taken steps to modernize the federal workplace. Employees who are parents of a new child can now receive up to six weeks of paid sick leave. He has also called on Congress to pass legislation giving federal workers an additional six weeks of paid parental leave and to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would enable millions of Americans to get up to seven days of paid sick time. Moreover, the President proposed new funds to encourage states to develop paid family and medical leave programs.

Over the past few months, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and I have hit the road for our Lead on Leave: Empowering Working Families Across America tour, which highlights cities and states that are embracing the benefits of paid leave and family-friendly workplace policies. Employers are also following the President's example by implementing competitive leave programs and other family-friendly policies. For example, Goldman Sachs and Johnson & Johnson have expanded their leave policies. Microsoft and Facebook are requiring new paid leave policies for their vendors and suppliers, and Walmart, Target and McDonald's, together with many others, have instituted wage increases. But much work remains.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs that prioritize our health and family responsibilities must not forget that there are millions who are forced to make impossible choices every day. Please join President Obama and raise this issue in your communities. Decision makers need to know that supporting working families is in everyone's best interest, and it's up to each of us to take action. This is not a partisan issue. When women succeed, America succeeds.

Valerie Jarrett is senior advisor to President Obama and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now!

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