To Bene’t Holmes, the White House Summit on Working Families was personal, not just another event designed by President Obama and his fellow Democrats to draw a policy or political contrast with Republicans this election year.
“I believed everything he said,” the 25-year-old single mom said of the president’s pitch.
Holmes makes $15,000 per year working full-time for Walmart in Chicago. “It’s very hard to make ends meet,” said Holmes. “My son’s school is $300 a month. I only make between $600 and $700 each month. So that’s basically half my paycheck gone. And then I have to put food on the table.”
The president held the event Monday to advance his case that more family-friendly workplace flexibility is key to economic growth in 21st Century. Specifically, the summit addressed three primary issues for working women who now make up more than half of the American workforce. Topping the list was low wages, erratic scheduling, and gender pay disparities.
“Anything that makes things harder for women makes things harder for families,” the president said in his remarks. “When women succeed, America succeeds. These are common sense issues.”
Republicans label such events as more political propaganda than policy, but White House allies argue that good policy arguments make good political arguments.
“This White House has appealed to women from the beginning, they just haven’t publicized it very much,” said Kim Gandy, former president of the National Organization for Women and now president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “They do a lot of things behind the scene at 4 o’clock on Fridays.”
Still, there is no disputing the importance of women voters to Democrats’ chances in 2014. Monday’s summit followed a spring Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee women’s bus tour, a push for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the president’s executive action to extend family and medical leave benefits to same-sex couples. In the days before the summit, Obama selected journalists who were all working mothers, or soon-to-be mothers, to interview him.
“What are people supposed to do to try and get elected?” asked Amy Traub, Senior Policy Analyst at the liberal organization Dēmos and the author of Retail’s Choice: How Raising Wages and Improving Schedules for Women in the Retail Industry Would Benefit America. “To the extent that it is part of an election ploy, it’s good to see elections fought on the basis of issues and policies.”
It was the president’s personal touch that resonated with Walmart worker Holmes.
“I take this personally,” the president said. “I was raised by strong women who worked hard to support my sister and me. I saw what it was like for a single mom.”
Walmart rakes in over $16 billion in profits each year, yet most of the megastore’s employees earn less than $25,000 annually. Holmes lives with her parents, and like many Walmart workers, relies on food stamps and other government subsidies to get by.
Recently, she went from struggling worker to activist.
In February, Holmes suffered a miscarriage while on the job at Walmart. “I had asked my assistant manager for lighter duty. He said no. I was lifting two big bottles of bleach in a brown box.”
He told her that when she signed up for the job, she also signed up for lifting fifty pounds. She joined OUR Walmart, an organization speaking out against the work standards of the country’s largest employer of women.
Retail salesperson is the most common job in America, and retail is one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing industries. For each of the top three issues women addressed at the summit, women in the retail sector are hit particularly hard.
First, less than 50 percent of retail jobs are filled by women, for example, yet women make up 55.4 percent of the industry’s low-wage workers.
Second, scheduling issues are a particular challenge for women in retail. Traub says it’s because women still take on the majority of family responsibilities. “Workers’ schedules fluctuate from week to week, even from day to day. It’s very hard to set the childcare if you don’t know how many hours or which hours you’re going to be working the following week. That’s one challenge that falls disproportionately on women,” she explained.
Taking time off, even when they need to care for a sick child, can come at a high cost. A recent Oxfam America study found that 19 percent of the working mothers in the survey had lost a job as a result of getting sick themselves, or leaving work to care for a sick child.
Obama says he gets the juggle many working mothers face, and even tried to make a joke about his good fortune. "I never had to meet a world leader with Cheerios stuck to my pants," Obama said.
Third, there’s the low-wage pay gap. According to Traub the typical woman working in retail earns just $10.58 per hour. For single parents, that means either a second job or diving deep into debt to support their families.
In Traub’s latest Demos study, she finds that if the country’s biggest retailers upped their wages to $25,000 per year for full-time employment, an estimated 437,000 employed women would no longer have to live in poverty.
Democrats and their allies in the wage fight also insist there’s plenty of evidence raising wages doesn’t hurt business. Case in point: San Francisco. With a minimum wage of $10.74 per hour (which is higher than any state minimum wage or the federal minimum wage), San Francisco has had faster job growth than any other major American city over the past decade. According to new data from payroll-processor Paychex, small businesses in the ‘City by the Bay’ are thriving.
Whether or not those flipping burgers at In-N-Out in California are living better lives is up for debate. But Traub says California is making giant steps forward. “It’s an inspiration nationally, and hopefully, it will be to Congress,” said Traub. Then she added: “eventually.”
That may be wishful thinking, with Republicans already opposed to most of the Democratic initiatives and seemingly poised to make midterm election gains.
As the president was speaking Monday, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida released a statement saying the president’s focus on government-based solutions was all wrong. “Telling federal agencies to do what they’re already supposed to do and endorsing partisan legislation that will never pass is not the sort of bold, innovative leadership we need,” said Rubio, who plans to announce his own conservative reforms this Wednesday.
That partisan divide is why Gandy believes it’s going to be corporations, not government, that will lead the way for women in the workplace. “I think it takes a few top companies in competitive industries to set the standard,” she said. “When companies who are behind start seeing a brain drain to forward thinking companies, they’ll get in line.”
But it will require workers to take a stand too. “Until employees start making it clear that if they aren’t treated well, it will affect the company’s bottom line,” said Gandy, “progress will move slowly.”
Holmes is an example of that.
“If things don’t change,” said Holmes, I will leave Walmart.”
Holmes didn’t get to meet President Obama, but she did meet her president—that’s Walmart President, Doug McMillon.
“He apologized, said Holmes. “He touched my elbow, told me he was sorry for my loss, and took down my story number.”
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