Twenty-two years ago, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett received what at the time seemed like the career opportunity of a lifetime from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who'd given her a promotion.
"He had given me a huge promotion [to chief of staff] and I was very nervous about my job and trying to prove to him what a good job I was going to do. We were sitting in his office one day in a meeting and I kept looking at my watch. He would catch me and I would stop and then look at my watch again," she told BET.com at the White House Working Families summit on Monday. "Finally, he said to me “Why do you keep looking at your watch? Where is it that you have to go?'"
Jarrett, a single mother, explained that the Halloween parade at her daughter's school, which was 25 minutes away, was starting in 20 minutes. The mayor said, "Well, what are you doing here?"
Just as she arrived at the school, her daughter came out and the first thing she did was look for her mother in the crowd. To this day, Jarrett is extremely grateful that she was there and still worries about how her daughter would have felt had she not been.
"So many parents aren’t making parent-teacher conferences let alone get to see a concert or participate in their children’s activities and that’s not good for them, it’s not good for the children, and it’s not good for society," she said. "And what the president wants to make sure is that we are able to fulfill our responsibilities to our families at the same time as we are productive at work."
Jarrett added that it's also important for employers to recognize the needs of the 21st century workforce. Being more flexible will enable them to attract and retain talent and ultimately be more profitable, which in turn benefits the economy.
Because they are disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs, African-American families in particular could benefit from employer flexibility but are the least likely to experience it.
"We often talk about how women are trying to break the glass ceiling, but there’s also a sticky floor," Jarrett said. "You think you’ve finally got it so you can pay all your bills and then your car breaks down or your child gets sick."
Part of the Working Families summit's purpose is to take a hard look at the nation's policies and culture and whether the U.S. can be competitive in the 21st century if it doesn't take better care of its employees.
Obama is calling on every federal agency head to educate employees about the right to request workplace flexibility, which, for example, would allow workers to occasionally alter their schedules. There are regulations that give them certain rights, Jarrett said, but a lot of people don't know about them or that they can't be penalized for asking for some flexibility.
"It doesn’t mean that every time your boss will give it to you, but you at least have the right to request it," she said.
The U.S. is the only developed nation that doesn't have universal paid family leave, which the administration would like to see change. The policy would aid families in a number of ways, enabling parents to stay home with a sick child, a dad to spend time bonding with a newborn and adult children to care for aging parents.
Jarrett says the Working Families summit could be the start of a movement.
"What we’re hoping is that after today people will begin to have a conversation around the kitchen table and around the water cooler. And if more and more people are making it clear to their employers what they need in order to thrive, there’s safety in numbers," she said, adding that needing time off should not lead to employers questioning a worker's commitment to his or her job.
"That's the cultural change that we’re looking for. We think that will begin today and continue," Jarrett said.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)