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Remarks by the First Lady at a Workplace Flexibility Conference

March 31, 2010

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you, everyone. (Applause.) Thanks so much, everyone. (Applause.) Please rest. You're working hard enough as it is.

Well, hello, everyone, and welcome to the White House, sort of. We're across the street, but it's good to have you all here.

I want to thank Valerie for that very kind introduction, for her outstanding work not just on this issue but on so many others; her friendship and support. And I also want to thank her staff again who have done just a phenomenal job in organizing this conference and bringing us all together. This is just a wonderful way to spend an afternoon on an important issue.

I'd also like to thank all of the outstanding members of this administration who are here for taking the time to be here today.

And I want to thank everyone who has joined us to share their ideas and expertise on this critically important topic. Thank you for taking the time.

As Valerie said, we've come here today to have a conversation about workplace flexibility: an important part of balancing our responsibilities as employees, as breadwinners, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives.

It's an issue that many folks have struggled with for so many years, and one that we as a society just hasn't really quite figured out yet.

And as the parents of two beautiful young daughters, it is an issue that is particularly important to me and my husband, as you know. As Valerie said, I've talked about this so often.

And it is true, in our current life, we are incredibly blessed. We have amazing resources and support systems here at the White House that I could have never imagined. Number one of them is having Grandmother living upstairs. (Laughter.) We all need one of those. So can you figure that out? (Laughter.)

But we didn't always live in the White House. And for many years before coming to Washington, I was a working mother, doing my best to juggle the demands of my job with the needs of my family, with a husband who has crazy ideas. (Laughter.)

And as I've said before, I consider myself, as many of us in this room do, as a 120-percenter, which means that if I'm not doing something at 120 percent, I feel like I'm failing. And I know you all can relate to that. So while I did the best that I could at work and at home, I felt like I wasn't keeping up with either one of them enough.

And I was lucky -- I had understanding bosses, I had very accommodating jobs. In fact, in the last job I had before coming to the White House -- I remember this clearly -- I was on maternity leave with Sasha, still trying to figure out what to do with my life, and I got a call for an interview for this position, a senior position at the hospitals. And I thought, okay, here we go. So I had to scramble to look for babysitting, and couldn't find one. So what did I do? I packed up that little infant, and I put her in the stroller, and I brought her with me. And I prayed that her presence wouldn't be an automatic disqualifier. And it was fortunate for me that, number one, she slept through the entire interview. (Laughter.) And I was still breastfeeding -- if that's not too much information. (Laughter.) And I got the job.

But I know that I was lucky, number one. I was interviewing with the president that had just had a child himself and was very understanding and open-minded. But I know that most folks are nowhere near as lucky as I was. Particularly right now with the job market the way it is, many folks can't afford to be picky about the jobs that they take. Many folks don't have access to any kind of family leave policies whatsoever. No flexible working arrangements. Many people don't even have a paid sick day. So they are struggling -- struggling every day to find affordable childcare; or someone to look after an aging parent, which is becoming more the issue; scrambling to make things work when the usual arrangements fall through. All of us have been through that.

So they spend a lot of time hoping and praying that everything will work out just perfectly. I remember those days, just the delicate balance of perfection. And as all the parents in this room know, it's never perfect -- ever.

But here's the thing: As we all know here today, it just doesn't have to be that way, doesn't have to be that hard. And that's something that I learned for myself, not just as an employee but as a manager, when I discovered that the more flexibility that I gave to my staff to be good parents, and I valued that, the happier my staff was likely to be and the greater chance they were to stay and not leave, because they knew they might not find the same kind of flexibility somewhere else.

So it's something that many of the companies here today have discovered, very fortunately, that flexible policies actually make employees more, not less, productive -- because as you all know, instead of spending time worrying about what's happening at home, your employees have the support and the peace of mind that they desperately need to concentrate on their work.

You all are pioneering the innovative ideas and the best practices to make balancing work and family life easier for your employees and better for your bottom lines.

You're doing so much -- providing discounts on childcare -- important; setting up scholarship programs to help pay for college -- amazing.

Many of you are offering compressed work weeks, you're offering generous leave time, and mentoring programs that connect new parents or caregivers with folks who've been through it before.

And you're giving employees the right to even approach you and have an open and honest conversation about how to create a more flexible schedule. That is critical.

So here in the federal government, we're trying to follow your lead, putting our money where our mouth is to adopt more of those best practices –- from expanding telework access to providing emergency childcare and more affordable day care.

And that's why this administration supports 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. Doesn't seem like a lot, but it's important.

These are just a few of the examples of what we're going to be talking about today. And I'm looking forward to hearing more of the many ideas, the ways that you're figuring out how to make this issue work for your employees.

We are excited today to learn about your ideas, your best practices, what many of you have done to support your employees and to boost your bottom line at the same time.

So with that, I want to again thank you all. I want to thank you for the work that you've done in your companies to set the tone. I want to thank you for taking the time to share your ideas with us today.

So now my work is done. I can now turn it over to Claire and the panel, and you guys will figure this all out. (Laughter.)

MS. SHIPMAN: Forty-five minutes. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: That's right, 45 minutes. Shorter than health care, right?

MS. SHIPMAN: A little. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: Thanks so much. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at a Workplace Flexibility Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320622

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