US President Barack Obama said on Monday that the United States should join the rest of the industrialized world and offer paid leave for mothers of newborns.
"Many women can't even get a paid day off to give birth - now that's a pretty low bar," Obama said at the White House Summit on Working Families. "That, we should be able to take care of."
The president is talking about paid maternity leave in the midst of an election campaign season focused in many respects on women voters, raising questions about how he would fund such a system. "If France can figure this out, we can figure this out," Obama said.
French women get 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, rising to 26 for the third child.
The White House Summit on Working Families he hosted has been months in the making, with several regional events leading up to it featuring administration officials. The White House devoted all its star power to the event - and even a surprise appearance by a celebrity to echo Obama's criticism of "Mad Men" policies in today's workplace. Christina Hendricks, who plays single mom Joan on a television dramatization of a 1960s ad firm, said, "In the 21st Century the only place for a story like Joan's should be on TV."
While some companies offer paid family leave to attract workers, the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act only requires that employers provide unpaid leave for medical and family reasons.
Obama praised California, Rhode Island and New Jersey for creating a state benefit. But he has not endorsed legislation that would create a similar national system funded by a payroll tax, and he pledged in his 2008 presidential campaign not to raise taxes on families making under $250,000 a year.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat, has introduced legislation that would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave through a fund in the Social Security Administration, paid for by contributions from employees and employers of 0.2 percent of wages. She said she has personally encouraged the president to back it and hopes he will, despite his tax pledge.
"We're talking about 2 cents of every $10," she said in an interview at the summit. She said without such a fund, eight out of 10 workers can't take advantage of their right for family leave because they can't afford it.
When Obama came to the White House, he instituted six weeks of paid leave for his workers when they have a child, get sick or injured or need to care for an ailing family member, using his authority to set his staff's compensation under the personnel code. He does not have the power to award paid leave to other federal workers without congressional action since they are covered under a different section of law. The White House has supported the goal of legislation introduced by lawmakers to change that, but it has yet to get through Congress.
"There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us," Obama said. "And that is not the list you want to be on - on your lonesome. It's time to change that."
Obama also encouraged employers to have more flexible work schedules and directed federal agencies to expand flexible work arrangements where possible. He also urged Congress to pass legislation requiring employers to accommodate pregnant employees so they can continue to perform their jobs.
The president personalized the issues by talking about the struggles of his single mother and the challenges that he and his wife, Michelle, had when their children were young, even though they were fortunate to have benefits many workers don't enjoy.
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, responded to Obama by announcing he would outline his vision Wednesday for "how modern conservative reforms can help bring the American Dream within reach for millions of single mothers, young Americans and working families."
"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," Rubio said in a statement.