Last week, Shelby Ramirez—a mother of two, security officer, college student and activist—sat down to lunch with President Obama. The lunch was part of the landmark White House Summit on Working Families, co-sponsored by the White House, the U.S. Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress. Attending the daylong summit alongside Shelby, my colleagues and I found incredible validation of the work that Ford and our partners (many of whom were among the 1200 people attending the Summit) have been doing to expand the availability of paid sick days, paid family leave and a family-supporting wage for all workers across the country.
Ford recently hosted the 10th anniversary celebration of Family Values @ Work (FV@W), a network of state coalitions around the country working to ensure that every American can take time off from work to care for themselves or their loved ones. At the celebration, FV@W screened a moving series of videos telling the stories of people across the country who have either benefited from new paid sick days or family and medical leave insurance laws, or suffered because of the lack of such policies.
I was particularly inspired by a video that told Shelby’s story of having to take unpaid time off from her low-wage job as a security officer to care for family members during health crises. Losing that income not only escalated her already financially precarious situation, but convinced her of the importance of advocating for workplace policies that make it possible for workers to take time off to care for their families without sacrificing pay. Policies like that would have helped in her own situation, and Shelby knew it would also help millions of workers and caregivers around the country who face similar struggles. Shelby filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in her own case, and—in addition to working, caring for her daughter and father and going to college—she’s now an activist with 9to5, FV@W’s anchor group in Colorado: leafleting, testifying and engaging other workers in the fight for a state paid family leave program.
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In his speech at the White House summit, President Obama was clear about the importance of workplace flexibility, a decent wage and helping families lead balanced lives. “The bottom line is 21st-century families deserve 21st-century workplaces,” he said. “And our economy demands them, because it’s going to help us compete. It’s going to help us lead. And that means paid family leave, especially paid parental leave.”
Earlier, speaking as part of a plenary session, Seattle business-owner and Main Street Alliance member Makini Howell explained that she worked to raise the minimum wage to $15 in her city because a higher wage “puts more money into the economy, since my workers are another business’s consumers.” Amid the incredible energy of the summit, hearing them speak gave me hope that we’re coming close to a tipping point.
At the end of a busy day, I got to have dinner with Shelby and several other activists at Busboys and Poets, a high road restaurant that has proven that small businesses can thrive when they treat their employees well. As we reveled in the momentum that Shelby and other activists have helped build, Shelby described how meaningful it was to have the President’s full attention at lunch. She’s majoring in law and society, she said, because she wants to make a difference in the world.
We’re seeing the importance of quality jobs and services recognized on a federal level, fueled in large part by state and local victories. People want improved workplace policies that make it possible for them to provide for their families and be available to care for them when needed. Business owners like Makini Howell and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal know that “the economy is built from the bottom up, not the top down, and every job should be an economy boosting job.”