Remarks by The First Lady During Visit to the Department of Labor
U.S. Department of Labor
11:09 A.M. EST
MRS. OBAMA: Thanks, everybody. (Applause.) Now, remember, you weren't supposed to get out of your seats -- (laughter) -- until the program was over. And you all agreed. I heard it. (Laughter.) But that's okay. (Laughter.)
Good morning, everyone. I am as thrilled to be here as you all seem to be. (Laughter.) But before we begin, I do want to take a moment just to express my profound heartbreak and our nation's deepest support for the people of Haiti in the wake of this just devastating disaster that they have suffered.
The destruction and the suffering that we see, the images that are coming out of that country are just overwhelming, and it is important for the people of Haiti to know that we are keeping the victims of this tragedy and their loved ones in our thoughts and our prayers. And that also includes prayers going out to all of the Haitian Americans who have families and friends there, and they're worried about them back home. It's difficult to get word. People don't know where folks are. This is a tough time for Haitian American citizens here, as well. And we also want to send our thoughts and prayers out to the American citizens who are working and living in Haiti, as well.
Right now my husband and the administration are focused on moving as many resources as possible into Haiti as quickly as possible so that we can save as many lives as we can. And later today I'll be taping a public service announcement for the Red Cross, which is providing on-the-ground support -- food, water, medicine -- that's desperately needed right now, particularly in this short period of 48, 72 hours after the disaster.
So for those Americans who are watching this, who are listening, who want to help -- and everyone's help and resources and energy at this time are critically important -- you can go to the White House Web site at obamawhitehouse.archives.gov to see what you can do to support our friends in Haiti in this time of urgent need.
And as you know, it's not just in the weeks and months ahead. This is going to be something that we're going to have to put our attention to for many years to come. So again, our thoughts and prayers go out to the country of Haiti.
But I'd like to start by first thanking your wonderful Secretary, Secretary Solis, not just for that very kind introduction but for all of her work that she's doing in this department. She is doing a fabulous job in so many areas. And all of you know -- (applause) -- and she's not just working here, but she has taken the time to travel with me on my special projects. We've spent a wonderful day in Denver, participating in a mentorship and leadership program there for young girls. And Secretary Solis was right there, the first one to sign up to go, as a busy Secretary, still never too busy to give back to an amazing group of girls -- and I will be grateful to her for a very long time for her outstanding work and willingness to step up and outside of her role. So we are grateful to you.
I also want to thank all of you here today and all your colleagues here in Washington who may not be in this room or across the country for all of your work. As you all know, I have spent a lot of time in the first year -- yes, it's been a year -- (laughter) -- since we've arrived in Washington, visiting agencies. And it's been wonderful for me to use these visits -- it's a way to learn more about the work that you do, to listen, to observe, to hear your concerns, and then to bring that information back to the White House so that my husband is getting even more feedback on how things are going.
So these visits have been so very important to me getting to better understand how this place works, and getting to know all of you.
And I know that some of you have been working in these departments for a very long time, for decades. And we have some of those long-term workers standing behind me. We have some of the longest-serving employees here at the department right behind me.
But something that the Secretary chose to do uniquely is to also recognize the many folks here who are just beginning their careers. And we can't forget those -- a lot of young people who are stepping into new roles and a lot of not-so-young people stepping into roles. (Laughter.) So also on the stage with us today are some of the very newest employees here at the Department, as well.
But I know that whether you all have worked here for decades or for days, you've been working very hard for the American people, and one of my primary reasons for being here is to express on behalf of not just myself and my family and the President, but the entire nation, our gratitude for the service that you have put in. We often forget about the work that you do to make things happen for this nation. And it's important that we shed this light on each and every one of you over the course of this year.
I am also looking forward to visiting some little people here. (Laughter.) After I speak here I'm going to go down to the childcare center, and as you know, I'm a sucker for kids. (Laughter.) I told the Secretary if I can come to the childcare center, I'll be here every week. (Laughter and applause.)
But I'm going to get to read one of my favorite books, "Green Eggs and Ham" -- (laughter) -- Dr. Seuss. And I'm also going to get to meet -- although I see some of you here -- some of the culinary students, young people who are working in the training program. (Applause.)
And I've heard that you have prepared a delicious and, hopefully, healthy snack for our children. (Laughter.) But we're grateful for you, and I'm looking forward to meeting you all.
I was pleased to hear that there was a childcare center here at the Department of Labor that not just serves the employees of the department, but working families throughout the area. And, as a parent, I know centers like this one create a great deal of peace of mind, so that people know that their kids are being taken care of. And that means that you can focus on your work and not worry about whether your kids are doing okay.
And that's actually what I'd like to just spend a few brief moments talking about today, an issue that I've talked a lot about, and that's the issue of work-life balance. You know it: the constant struggle to meet our responsibilities both as employees, but also as breadwinners, and mothers and fathers. It's one of those issues that we, as a society, still haven't quite figured out yet. We're still working on it. And as the mother of two young girls -- who are doing just fine, by the way -- (laughter) -- it's an issue that is particularly near and dear to my heart, as I have spoken about.
In my current life as the First Lady of the United States, I am incredibly blessed and I know that, because I have more support than I could have ever asked for and ever imagined, including my mother, who has moved here to help us sort through all the challenges.
But I didn't always live in the White House, as you know. For many years -- just a few years ago, we came to Washington, I was a part of that work-family struggle to balance that full-time job, plus being an around-the-clock role -- that role you play as mom, particularly when you have a spouse who is traveling a lot.
And I've said this before, but probably like many of you, I consider myself one of those 120-percenters, which essentially means that if you are not doing everything at 120 percent, you think you're failing. I suffer from that malady. So when I was at work during these times, I always felt like I was shortchanging my girls. But then when I was at home, I was worried that I was letting people at work down. And with that kind of anxiety, comes a lot of additional stress and a whole lot of guilt. So I know all of us are walking around with a whole lot of guilt, just carrying it around. (Laughter.)
And I was lucky even back then, because I had understanding bosses, people like Secretary Solis, who shared my same values for the importance of doing a good job but also raising a good family. And I was also fortunate to work in jobs that were reasonably accommodating, with people who understood that if you left a little early for -- to get in the car line, that that wasn't some huge definition of your dedication to your job.
And while there's certainly plenty of employers out there who recognize the value of good work-life policies, many people in this country just aren't as fortunate to work with those employers. And with the job market the way it is right now, many folks can't afford to be picky. You just can't. When you have a job, you keep it; and you settle for the terms that you have because you know you're blessed to even have a job. And many don't have access, as a result, to good family leave policies or any kind of flexibility in the workplace at all. It's just not possible. So they struggle to find affordable childcare and emergency childcare when their usual arrangements fall through, which they always do -- right?
And believe it or not, today roughly 40 percent of private-sector employees work at companies that don't offer a single day of paid sick leave. Not a single day. And I think that reflects a larger problem, that for too long we as a society have viewed policies that help people balance work and family as somehow a special benefit maybe to women who shoulder that, rather than an essential part of a workplace that can benefit everyone in the workplace.
To this day there's still the perception that workers who need time off to care for a sick parent, or who want a more flexible schedule so they can go to the potluck or the play or the parent-teacher conference, are somehow less committed or less desirable. There's this idea that workplaces that accommodate these needs are destined to be less profitable, less productive somehow.
But we now know that that's just simply not the case. There's a lot of evidence out there from companies who've implemented really innovative processes to help families. We now know that these kind of policies can actually make employees more productive. We all know this, right? Because instead of spending all day at work worrying about what's happening at home, they have the support that they need to concentrate on their jobs. And it makes a huge difference in terms of productivity. Just mental health comfort and stability helps workers be better. We know that.
And that's why we need to change the way we look at these issues so that our workplaces can catch up to the realities of our lives. It's time we viewed family-friendly policies as not just niceties for women but as necessities for every single working American -- men and women -- because more and more men are shouldering that same kind of burden. And that's good, but that's new. (Laughter and applause.)
Staying home to care for a sick child or taking an elderly parent to a doctor's appointment shouldn't mean risking one's job. That shouldn't be the tradeoff. People shouldn't have to choose between taking the time they need after giving birth, for example, or adopting a child, and keeping that job that they need to support the child they just had. That shouldn't be the choice.
Things like paid family leave and sick days and affordable childcare should be the norm, not the exception. That's why we think it's important to highlight companies that are embracing these policies, ones that are experimenting with things like flex time and telecommuting and focusing on performance and output rather than face time. That's why the President and Secretary Solis have spoken out in favor of the Healthy Families Act, which would let millions more working Americans earn up to seven days a year of paid sick time to care for themselves and their families. That would be innovative and new. But we are happy that we have a President and a Secretary of the Department of Labor who had the vision and the foresight to see that this now needs to happen. (Applause.)
But the administration also knows that we essentially have to put our money where our mouths are, so the administration is working to practice what we preach and make the federal government a model of what we're asking others to do. From expanding telework options to providing emergency childcare and affordable day care, we need to be implementing all of those ideas throughout the federal government. I was particularly pleased to learn that the childcare center here at the Department of Labor actually provides financial aid to help employees afford excellent care regardless of the size of their paychecks, and those are the kind of things that we need to be doing all across the government. (Applause.)
So these are just a few examples of the kind of concrete steps that we can take to restore some semblance of balance and sanity into the lives of people that you all know, because it's probably you. (Laughter.) And this is just the beginning. And there's a lot of work to do -- as we all know, as the President has said. He said it before he took the oath of office -- change is important, change is hard, and change takes time. I remember him saying that. (Laughter.) So we all know that we have a long way to go, again, and it won't be easy. But as one of Secretary Solis's predecessors, President Roosevelt's Labor Secretary Frances Perkins once pointed out that most of our problems -- and this is a quote -- "have been met and solved either partially or as a whole by experiment based on common sense and carried out with courage."
That's what we need today as well. We need all of you to take the lead -- or continue to take the lead in this effort. And all of us, in both government and the private sector, will need to come up with new ideas, try out new approaches, and rely on our courage and our common sense to guide us along the way.
But as I say in all my visits, we're going to need all of you maintaining some level of energy and optimism through the tough days, because we know you all are working hard -- many people staying late, putting in overtime, going the extra mile to make sure that the Department of Labor is strong and it continues to be a source of pride, not just for the administration but for the entire country. And we are grateful to all of you for that, and oftentimes you don't hear it, but we are grateful. We are a grateful First Family, and we are a grateful nation for the work that you do. We couldn't do it without you.
So hang in there. If we have all of you continuing to work as you do, I am confident that we will meet these challenges. So thank you all so much. And with that, I'm going to shake some hands and then read "Green Eggs and Ham." (Applause.)
11:28 A.M. EST