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Making the Road in New York: A Model for Work-Family Policy Change

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In New York City this week, just one day after Mother's Day, working families and activists gathered to discuss their efforts to really value mothers -- through policies that reflect the realities of the 21st Century workforce. The event, hosted by the Department of Labor Women's Bureau, is one of five regional events leading up to White House Summit on Working Families, June 23 in Washington, D.C.

And New York City was the perfect location. The region has become a hotbed of forward-thinking work and family policies recently.

The event brought together the region's top advocates working to put families first: elected officials, activist, policy and business leaders who really get it. Included in this group was Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on expanding paid sick days and ensuring universal pre-kindergarten for every four-year-old in the city. He's made good on both campaign promises within his first six months on the job. And Secretary of Labor Tom Perez gave an impassioned keynote about how work-family policies are the most important tool for spurring our economy and rebuilding our nation. Secretary Perez shared his own experience of making time to coach his children's sports teams -- and how impossible that is for parents working two or three jobs to get by.

The NY Democratic delegation was in full force, too, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler, sponsor of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a bill that would ensure pregnant women can't be fired or pushed out simply because they request temporary accommodations due to their pregnancy. As was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who explained why she introduced the FAMILY Act, legislation that would guarantee up to twelve weeks of paid family and medical leave, and put the U.S. in line with 178 other countries. And Representatives Charlie Rangle, Nita Lowey and Jose Serrano all noted the unwillingness of many in Congress to discuss key issues like pay equity and the minimum wage, both critical economic security measures for all families.

Jason's story, a video produced by Family Values @ Work that was shown at the Summit, visualized these issues for participants all too well. A New Jersey father whose twins were born premature, Jason and his wife were able to keep their babies home until they were six months old because New Jersey state passed paid family leave insurance in 2006. Like many NJ, CA and RI dads (and moms), Jason wasn't penalized economically for being a responsible parent.

The forum ended with a talk by Valerie Jarrett, special assistant to President Obama, who shared her struggles as a single working mom and then opened the room for discussion. You can imagine the comments. They are your concerns and mine. Not enough time off to care for aging parents; paternity leave that is non-existent or too short to allow fathers to bond with their newborns; a lack of paid sick days that forces mothers to lose pay when their children are sick.

As Jason's story and Valerie Jarrett's experience illustrate, America must catch up to the rest of the world. Our families and our economy need effective workplace policies if we're going to build a middle class and pull families out of poverty.

We need a living wage so workers can be effective on the job and at home. We need to close the wage gap so working women and minorities aren't discriminated against and have more money to spend as consumers. And we need paid sick days, which are not only morally right, but are sound fiscal and business policy.

The NY Forum underscored government's proper role in our society. They helped initiate and convene a national conversation on work-family issues, lifting up what works for families and businesses across the nation. It's a conversation that will continue at the water cooler and around the dinner table -- and one all elected officials should be taking up in the halls of government.