Workers shouldn’t have to win the “boss lottery” to receive family-friendly benefits such as paid maternity and paternity leave and flexible scheduling, according to U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez.
Perez, speaking to a group of business leaders during a stop in Missoula on Tuesday, was referring to the few forward-thinking companies that treat their employees as valuable assets worth nurturing and retaining.
Those businesses allow workers to focus on their families as much as they focus on their work.
The labor secretary led a roundtable discussion at Advanced Technology Group, a Missoula-based business consulting company that prides itself on having very few rigid policies and instead works with employees on a case-by-case basis to adapt to their individual needs and schedules.
“Here at ATG, they’ve created a corporate culture of inclusion and opportunity for people that’s remarkable,” Perez said. “But you shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery to be able to have a few weeks off after you give birth. You shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery to take care of your sick kids. And that’s the model in America right now. And regrettably, we’re the only nation on Earth where paid leave is a partisan issue.
"Everywhere else in the world, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, progressives, they understand when you have a paid leave system and a child care system you are enabling more women to work. You are enabling more dads to work. You are enabling a virtuous cycle to be created. There’s a lot of energy here in Montana and a lot of folks who are fighting for a sensible leave policy.”
Perez listened as ATG director of business development Claude Sammoury recalled how he and his wife had their third child as he was trying to earn his degree. He said that ATG’s flexible policies allowed him to help take care of the kids so his wife could work as a nurse at St. Patrick Hospital.
“We see it as a competitive advantage,” Sammoury said of his company’s policies. “It helps with recruiting and retention and bringing people back to this state. That’s a big part of us, that work-life balance. That’s how you get away from that boss lottery. You make it known that businesses benefit from doing this. Montana companies can be more competitive toward the rest of the country.”
Iris Owens, a certified public accountant at Anderson ZurMuehlen's Missoula office, told Perez that she had twins 18 months ago.
“I remember when I found out, I was terrified about what would happen,” she recalled. “I didn’t know if I would be able to continue my career.”
Owens said her company allowed her to take four months off and then work from home when she needed to watch the kids.
“It’s saved a ton of money on child care,” she said. "I'm lucky that I work for a company that allowed me to do this."
Perez lauded Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Pam Bucy and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester for their work in advancing the issue.
“When you give birth to a child, you should be able to enjoy the most wonderful time of your life and you shouldn’t be sitting there fretting about how you are going to pay the bills when you’re off,” Perez said. “Again, we’re the only nation on Earth where that’s the case. And that’s wrong. If you believe that family comes first, then you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is. And it doesn’t break the bank. Study after study has shown that it doesn’t break the bank, and it’s been done in other states. It’s hurting our family structure and hurting our global competitiveness.”
Perez said that flexible workplace scheduling may take some time to spread throughout the country, but is inevitable.
“Everywhere I go around the country, the same conversation is occurring,” he said. “In our modern family world, you’ve got families balancing a lot of things. They want to be a good worker, they want to be a good parent. And we’ve got 19th century policy at the federal level. The rest of the world understands that we need to address child care, that we need to address family leave and things of that nature. We’re the only industrialized nation on the planet that hasn’t addressed this issue at a federal level.”
Perez criticized what he called a system of “taxpayers subsidizing the low-wage business models.”
“When at $7.25 an hour, you work a full-time job and you’re on food stamps,” he explained. “And literally, if you raise the minimum wage, you will literally remove between 3.5 (million) and 4 million people from the food stamp rolls and save billions of dollars for taxpayers by raising the minimum wage. Right now, that’s corporate welfare. I don’t know why we’re subsidizing the low-wage business model. And that’s why, when I talk to businesses, they understand when you lift wages you’re able to retain people because they become loyal to you. Henry Ford, 100 years ago, doubled wages on the assembly line because he knew that when you pay people enough you’ll keep them. And guess what they do with that extra money? They spend it. Big-box stores and restaurants add more customers and it creates a virtuous cycle. So our current model is effectively subsidizing low wages as a subsidy for corporations, and that’s not right.”
Perez also delivered the keynote address at an education conference at the University of Montana called “Defining a 21st Century Education for a Vibrant Democracy.” His talk was part of a session on preparing a competitive workforce.
During the roundtable at ATG, Perez discussed the workforce issue with Bucy.
“The economy is doing very well (in Montana),” Bucy told Perez. “We have the fastest wage growth in the nation. Personal income has increased by 4 percent over the last year, which is good, but we are still 42nd in the nation in real wages. Our GDP increased by 4.5 percent last year, and our unemployment rate is ideal at 4.1 percent.”
Bucy said that Montana is facing a very critical worker shortage.
“In the next decade, we will have 130,000 baby boomers retiring, and we have the second-oldest workforce in the country,” she explained. “We already have baby boomers working longer than most of them had planned. There are 123,000 16- to 24-year-olds to take those jobs, and that math already doesn’t add up. We are predicting growth of 6,500 jobs per year over the next decade.
"So we really are in a place where it’s an opportunity, but we are having lots of conversations about how to increase labor force participation and speed up and have less expensive training in Montana.”