First lady Michelle Obama urged companies to implement policies that will help their employees better balance work and family obligations during an appearance at the Department of Labor on Thursday, January 14.
In an address to about 400 Labor Department employees, Obama also promoted legislation that would guarantee paid sick leave, a measure that has generated concern among HR organizations in Washington.
Obama has been touring government agencies during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, giving pep talks to staff members.
At the Labor Department, Obama touched on an issue that has been central to her professional life—simultaneously managing the demands of home and the workplace.
Obama achieved success as a Chicago lawyer while her husband built his political career. They also started a family, having two girls, Sasha and Malia, who are now in grade school.
Drawing parallels to other working mothers, Obama called herself a “120-percenter.”
“So when I was at work during these times, I always felt like I was shortchanging my girls,” she said. “But then when I was at home, I was worried that I was letting people at work down. And with that kind of anxiety comes a lot of additional stress and a whole lot of guilt.”
Such worries undermine work performance, Obama said. She argued that flextime, telecommuting and paid time off produces happier employees and more profitable companies.
“Instead of spending all day at work worrying about what’s happening at home, they have the support that they need to concentrate on their jobs,” Obama said.
Although many employers have established good work/life benefits, too many Americans don’t have access to flexibility policies, Obama said.
“Staying home to care for a sick child or taking an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment shouldn’t mean risking one’s job,” Obama said. “Things like paid family leave and sick days and affordable child care should be the norm, not the exception.”
She said that 40 percent of private-sector employees work for companies that don’t provide paid sick days. She endorsed the Healthy Families Act, a bill that would enable employees to earn up to seven paid sick days per year to care for themselves or a loved one.
“We are happy that we have a president and a secretary of the Department of Labor who had the vision and the foresight to see that this now needs to happen,” Obama said.
The Society for Human Resource Management and other HR organizations have expressed concerns that the measure could undermine paid-time-off programs that companies currently have in place.
SHRM is promoting a leave concept that would protect companies from federal leave mandates if they offer PTO.
Following her speech, Obama visited the Labor Department’s Child Development Center. The facility provides day care for the children of department employees and area families.
“As a parent, I know centers like this one create a great deal of peace of mind,” Obama said. “That means that you can focus on your work and not worry about whether your kids are doing OK.”
Obama fielded questions about her daughters from an exuberant group of 5-year-olds before reading them the Dr. Seuss story Green Eggs & Ham.