NC families call for workplace change at White House conference

shaven@mcclatchydc.comJune 23, 2014 

— It’s been seven years since Jennifer Ferris of Chapel Hill had a full-time job. It’s also been seven years since Ferris had her first child.

When her son was 6 months old, Ferris had to make a choice: Pay $12,000 a year for child care or quit her job.

“I don’t believe that we need to live in a world where people need to make those decisions,” Ferris said. “I made the decision. It was a hard one. And I’m paying for it.”

Hundreds of women, business leaders and politicians with similar stories packed into a Washington hotel Monday for a White House conference on families.

Dozens of people reflected on the problems they’ve had with the balance between family and work. Speakers, including President Barack Obama, TV newswomen Maria Shriver and Robin Roberts, activist Gloria Steinem and Vice President Joe Biden, voiced their support for change, including reducing the cost of child care.

The president admonished the “outdated” workplace policies in the United States. He called on Congress to pass the Pregnant Worker’s Discrimination Act and announced an executive action to protect federal workers from retaliation if they request flexible hours.

“Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage: These are not frills, they are basic needs,” Obama said. “They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society.”

Obama noted that in 31 states, child care is more expensive than in-state college tuition.

Hearing the White House recognize stories such as her own was a milestone for Ferris, who attended as part of a delegation with Women AdvaNCe, a nonprofit dedicated to North Carolina women’s issues. Although she’s built a freelance writing and editing business, Ferris lamented the sacrifices she had to make to do so.

Women lose 19 percent of their wages on average after having children, which is known as the “mommy tax.”

North Carolina received a “D” when the National Partnership for Women and Families analyzed states’ laws to accommodate working families.

Attorney Charliee Reece, who was at the conference with his wife, Laura, said when workplace policies didn’t accommodate his family’s needs, he changed employment – to his wife’s family business, Rho, a Chapel Hill medical research organization that’s won awards for its flexible workplace policies.

“Now that we’re in an environment that’s flexible, I feel like both of our careers thrive,” said Laura Helms Reece, the CEO of Rho.

The Reeces now work with regional businesses to implement more family-friendly policies.

“It’s really good business sense,” Laura Reece said. “It’s good for our bottom line to keep people happy and engaged.”

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