The Obama administration held the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families on Monday. Keeping the focus on topics like paid leave, equal pay and workplace flexibility is seen by Democrats as a winning strategy in the midterm elections.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. A packed hotel ballroom here in Washington today felt like a pep rally for family-friendly policies. The occasion was the White House Summit on Working Families. Paid sick leave, flexible work arrangements and affordable child care are seen by Democrats as winning political issues. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: There were signs that this wasn't your average policy conference, like the big, blue one with an arrow pointing to the lactation room for nursing moms, and there was free babysitting. Arit Essiea is a single mom with a 4-year-old and a 7-year-old who attended the conference as a part of the group Moms Rising.
ARIT ESSIEA: School is out. And really I didn't know if I could make the conference because I had no child care for the kids. Just the fact that they take into consideration things like that so that moms can get out there and be active and involved, I think that's major.
KEITH: Asked about her top agenda item, Essiea says paid leave, and she's not the only one. Speaker after speaker, right up to the president, called for paid sick leave and paid maternity leave.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us. And that is not the list you want to be on by your lonesome. It's time to change that.
KEITH: According to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, only 59 percent of workers have access to paid leave. Federal employees don't currently get paid maternity leave, and lower-income people are less likely to get paid time off. Ellen Bravo is executive director of Family Values @ Work, a group advocating for paid sick days and paid family leave. The summit, she says, is sending a message to politicians.
ELLEN BRAVO: Voters care deeply about this across the political spectrum including the Republicans, Independents and huge numbers of favorability in key voting blocks. You want to get your job or keep your job. We're paying attention. This is what people will vote on.
KEITH: But when it comes from these issues, change has been moving slowly. Candidate Obama hit on many of these same themes in 2008 and 2012. Democratic candidates are doing it again this year. Liz Shuler is secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
LIZ SHULER: All of these issues are galvanizing for the election, and I think it's top priorities for working families, especially women who are paying attention to what their politicians are doing. That will be what motivates them to vote in 2014.
KEITH: Not so fast, says Kirsten Kukowski of the RNC. She says Republicans aren't willing to cede to Democrats on these issues.
KIRSTEN KUKOWSKI: There's a lot of different legislation that's out there that's being proposed on both sides of the aisle. Let's sit down. Let's have a compromise. But instead, time and time again, what the Democrats are doing is doing these showy events to put a marker down and show women that they care.
KEITH: As several speakers at the summit said, society has changed, but workplace policies haven't. At the federal level, at least, they are unlikely to change anytime soon. Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.