Expanding Workplace Flexibility and Empowering Workers

whitehouse_0President Barack Obama is expected to use his executive authority soon to expand workplace flexibility.

He plans to issue a Presidential Memorandum “directing federal agencies to implement existing efforts to expand flexible workplace policies to the maximum possible extent.” In support of this goal, this executive action will direct agencies to review their workplace flexibilities, programs, best practices, and barriers to their use.

In addition, the memorandum will make clear that federal workers have the right to request a flexible work arrangement without fear of retaliation, and will direct agencies to establish procedures for addressing these requests by employees. Finally, it will call for training all employees and their supervisors on the effective use of these tools and will direct the Office of Personnel Management to create a new Workplace Flexibility Index that will be published online and updated annually to measure agencies’ success.

The administration announced a number of other initiatives being undertaken to improve job options, workplace fairness, and equal opportunities for all citizens.

Supporting the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act

Though Congress in 1978 passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibiting employers from dismissing or demoting a woman because she became pregnant, many women still face discrimination in the workplace.

President Obama will ask Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which would require employers to make reasonable accommodations to workers who have limitations from pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions (unless it would impose an undue hardship).

The legislation also would prohibit employers from forcing pregnant employees to take paid or unpaid leave if a reasonable accommodation would allow them to work.

At the president’s direction, the Dept. of Labor will release an online map where working families can learn about the rights of pregnant workers in each state at present, and will reflect any future changes in state and federal policy.

Extending workplace protections to all families

Last year, in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act. In the wake of the ruling, the president instructed the Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to implement the decision.

According to a report by the Department of Justice, the government will be able to extend benefits to same-sex married couples regardless of where they live. Also, the Labor Department plans to amend the definition of a “spouse” under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) so that eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages will be able to take FMLA leave to care for their spouse or family member, regardless of where they live.

Promoting access to child care for workers in job-training programs

The Labor Department will also fund training grants to provide low-wage individuals with opportunities to advance in their careers among in-demand industries, with $25 million of the competition focused on addressing barriers to training faced by those with childcare responsibilities.

With the help of additional public or private funding, the funds will promote locating childcare services adjacent to or near training facilities, establishing “unconventional” training times or locations that allow for child care, more flexibility for unexpected childcare exigencies, and improved access to related services.

For example, evidence shows that single parents who receive child care are much more likely to complete job-training programs than those who do not have access to child care. The new competition, which will be launched next year, will aim to increase participation and completion rates of those in training by supporting sustainable and innovative approaches that expand workers’ access to child care.

Expanding access to high-quality child care

The lack of high-quality, affordable child care and preschool has enormous economic implications for families. Greater availability of high-quality early care and education enables workers to succeed in their jobs while providing children the resources needed to support their healthy development and prepare them for success in school.

The U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services will release a new report on the administration’s work toward expanding access to high-quality early care and education, including efforts under the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge program, Head Start and Early Head Start, and the Child Care and Development Fund.

The report will highlight state progress on establishing standards and improving program quality as well as supporting family-friendly policies that help working parents find high-quality and sustainable child care for their children.

 Supporting high-quality early education for all children

The president has proposed a series of new investments that will improve early learning for children from birth to age five, including expanding evidence-based, voluntary home visits for parents and children; increasing high-quality infant and toddler care through Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships; and providing all four-year-old children with access to high-quality preschool.

Closing the Pay Gap

Ensuring that women earn equal pay is essential to improving the economic security of American families and the growth of our middle class and our economy. Women comprise nearly half of the American workforce, but on average earn less than similarly qualified men for doing the same job. The pay gap for women of color is even greater. A significant factor contributing to this persistent gap is the concentration of women in comparatively lower paying and non-supervisory professions.

Many high-paying jobs are in fields that require scientific knowledge or technical skills, where women and minorities often have been underrepresented or excluded. For example, despite accounting for half of the college-educated workforce, in 2010 women constituted 37% of employed individuals with a highest degree in a science and engineering field but only 28% of employed individuals in science and engineering occupations.

According to the administration, “The promise of equal pay for equal work must also be a promise of equal access to better-paying, STEM, and other non-traditional occupations.”

To achieve that promise, the administration announced that:

  • The Department of Energy (DOE) will announce new partnerships with “100K in 10,” and “US2020” to expand their Women @ Energy series profiling women in Federal STEM careers to inspire the next generation of energy scientists and engineers.
  • The National Science Foundation will implement cost-allowance policies for childcare at professional conferences that lesson the challenges for working families.
  • College and universities have launched new programs, scholarships, and outreach to expand STEM college completion for more underserved students, including broadening achievement to women and minorities in STEM fields in which they are under-represented. In particular, significant steps have been taken by Harvey Mudd College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wellesley College, and Stony Brook University.
  • Women hold only 2.6% of constructions jobs, a number virtually unchanged for 35 years. When the employment rates of women of color in construction are examined, the statistics are even bleaker.
  • Through the Obama Administration’s Mega-Construction Projects (MCP) Initiative, the Labor Dept. convenes contractors, unions, community leaders, and advocates involved in large-scale, high-profile construction projects to ensure coordination and compliance with equal-employment obligations. Designed to address the historical underrepresentation of minorities and women in skilled construction trades, the MCP Initiative enables contractors to identify qualified women and minority workers more easily.

Tax relief for working families

Recognizing the importance of tax relief for working families, the president enacted, (and Congress extended) with bipartisan support through 2017, significant improvements to tax credits for working families. These include expansions to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit, which strengthen work incentives and help parents afford the costs of raising a family, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which helps working and middle-class families pay for college. Together, these improvements provide about $25 billion in tax relief to 26 million families every year.

The president’s budget proposes to make these improvements permanent, while doing even more to promote work and support families through improving tax credits that help families with young children afford the rising costs of child care, and the EITC for workers without children, including non-custodial parents.

Among other initiatives the administration is pursuing to equalize career opportunities for women are the following:

  • A public-private partnership to recruit and train women for stem fields and apprenticeships for the $100M American Apprenticeship Grants to assist in increasing the number of women and other underrepresented groups in apprenticeships
  • A resource guide on women and minorities in apprenticeships, including tools to help employers and community-based organizations increase the representation of women and minorities in apprenticeships, as well as improve performance and completion rates
  • A digital clearinghouse to share the latest and best information on access to non-traditional occupations
  • A series of meetings sponsored by the Education Dept. and Georgetown University, convening policy makers, researchers, advocates, and marginalized young women, to help inform policies and proposals to increase young women’s participation in programs that prepare them for high-skill, high-wage jobs, including non-traditional occupations
  • A joint project by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Justice, and Labor to prevent and remedy discriminatory practices that “steer” women and men into specific jobs based on gender or impose barriers to hiring and advancement, and to prevent and remedy practices that discourage non-traditional applicants from working in traditionally gender-segregated occupations
  • A new commitment to add thousands of new technically-trained women to the U.S. talent pool through the Pacesetters program
  • Expanding access to the “Transforming Technical Job Ads” initiative, an effort to produce job ads with more inclusive language to encourage more female applicants, to over 150 corporate and small business and more than 300 college and university partners

Private sector outreach

Nonprofit organizations, advocacy groups, and businesses are also involved, or being recruited, to improve access to jobs, training, and fair treatment.

The Society of Women Engineers will release new online training tools for parents, educators, and mentors to inspire more young girls to pursue engineering careers. With funding from the S. D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the online resource gives parents information and tools to understand how engineering can improve girls’ academic achievement and career prospects, and gives teachers and mentors activities to use with students to engage and build their interests in STEM fields.

In consultation with the administration, business and industry groups will identify ways that employers can measure their own progress and help ensure they have effective practices in place to respond to workers’ work-life needs, retain the best talent, and are well-positioned for success in the 21st-century global economy.

More than forty unions and labor management organizations have pledged to expand low-skilled workers’ access to their training programs and share best practices on effective workforce and career pathway programs. These organizations are well-positioned to expand opportunities for women to improve their foundation skills to access higher-wage occupations in the fields of healthcare, construction, transportation, and manufacturing.

Taken together, the administration’s initiatives, programs, and policies, as well as its outreach and collaboration with the private sector, represents partnerships with almost 8,000 employers and will provide unprecedented access to educational and training opportunities as well as supportive services necessary for women and working families to be successful.

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