WASHINGTON — The parade of high-powered and successful people shared candid glimpses of how they coped — or not — in juggling work and life.
Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama, recalled fibbing to excuse herself from a business meeting 28 years ago, unwilling to acknowledge the real reason was that she was 8½ months pregnant and “needed to pee.”
Second lady Jill Biden talked of challenges in raising children while she taught full time and studied for her master’s degree.
Mark Weinberger, chairman and chief executive of EY, a global accounting and professional services firm formerly known as Ernst & Young, talked of bailing on a business dinner in China to keep a promise to be with his daughter during her driver’s exam.
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The personal testimonials came during Monday’s White House Summit on Working Families, a national dialogue about how workplace policies ought to evolve to accommodate modern families. The Obama administration and the Democratic Party are trying to harness a patchwork of changes that is already reshaping wage and work laws in places such as Seattle.
The goal is to help create an economy where full-time workers can earn enough not to need public assistance, where employees needn’t anguish about ducking out of work to take a sick child or parent to the doctor, and where companies embrace flexible policies that attract and retain committed workers.
Makini Howell, an owner of Seattle’s Plum Restaurants, told the audience at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., that as a black, female small-business owner, she feels particular responsibility to do well by her workers.
Howell, whose 52-employee, family-owned company operates several vegan eateries, said she supported Seattle’s new $15-an-hour minimum-wage ordinance, and mandatory paid sick-leave rules that took effect in 2012.
Employers “can care about the advancement of working families and still make a profit,” Howell said, drawing big cheers. “If you have a worker that dedicates five, 10 years of their lives to my success … why not pay a sick day?”
Howell, 37, insisted that was less a “bleeding heart” stance than a pragmatic decision — one that pays off in employee loyalty and reduced staff turnover.
In an interview, Howell also disagreed with Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas’ warning of “terrific price inflation” as the current state minimum wage of $9.32 an hour climbs in Seattle to $15 over next three to seven years. Tweaking menu prices as costs rise, she said, “is something we already do.”
Weinberger, of EY, said it’s imperative for businesses to adopt flexible policies lest workers vote with their feet. Some 60 percent of EY’s worldwide workforce of 180,000 are members of Generation Y and mostly in their 20s. Nearly 40 percent of those millennials, Weinberger said, would leave an employer that isn’t flexible about schedules, family leaves and other matters.
Weinberger said such wishes transcend gender, though women make up nearly half of today’s workforce.
“Women don’t want to be singled out, and men don’t want to be left out,” he said.
Jarrett rued that the United States remains almost a sole exception around the world in lacking mandatory paid maternity leave. A survey of 185 countries and territories by a United Nations agency last month found that only two other governments — Oman and Papua New Guinea — do not pay a portion of a new mother’s lost income or require employers to do so.
The daylong summit followed a series of actions by the Obama administration and Democrats focused on working families, particularly female breadwinners and two-paycheck households with children.
In February, Obama signed an executive order to raise the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 an hour on Jan. 1 for employees of federal contractors, ranging from defense companies like Boeing to janitorial and food-services firms. Last September, Obama ordered home-health aides reclassified so they would be covered under federal minimum-wage and overtime rules.
But those efforts have not been uniform around the nation. For instance, 27 states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages that exceed the federal minimum, while five states have no wage floors.
And when some employers begin paying their workers in Seattle $15 an hour in 2017, they won’t necessarily raise wages for employees in Bellevue or Everett.
The debate in places like Chicago and New York City has shifted, to how much, not if, to raise the minimum wage. In January, Gov. Jay Inslee called for raising the statewide minimum wage to nearly $12 an hour.
A month later, Inslee revealed that his administration was analyzing the possibility of raising the rate for state workers and contractors, an action he said he could, but not necessarily would, implement through executive order.
On Monday, however, Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said it was not “quite accurate to imply he was or is committed to pursuing a proposal specifically for state workers at this time.”
Smith, said Inslee still favors higher minimum wages for all residents. She said once state agencies put their budgets together, that “will shape what the governor proposes next year on an array of policy issues, including minimum wage.”
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @KyungMSong