WASHINGTON — It’s been seven years since Jennifer Ferris of Chapel Hill, N.C., had a full-time job. It’s also been seven years since Ferris had her first child.
When her son was 6 months old, Ferris had to make a choice: Pay for $12,000-a-year child care she could barely afford or quit her job.
“I don’t believe that we need to live in a world where people need to make those decisions,” Ferris said. “I made the decision. It was a hard one. And I’m paying for it.”
Ferris’ story is not unique. Hundreds of women, business leaders and politicians with similar stories packed into a Washington hotel Monday for a White House-sponsored conference on families in which dozens of people reflected on myriad problems they’ve had with the balance between families and work.
President Barack Obama was among several notable speakers at the conference, in which figures from Maria Shriver and Robin Roberts to Gloria Steinem and Vice President Joe Biden voiced their support for workplace revisions, such as reducing the cost of child care.
The president admonished the “outdated” workplace policies in the United States. Obama called on Congress to pass legislation such as the Pregnant Worker’s Discrimination Act and announced an executive action to protect federal workers from retaliation if they request flexible hours.
“Family leave, child care, workplace flexibility, a decent wage: These are not frills, they are basic needs,” Obama said. “They shouldn’t be bonuses. They should be part of our bottom line as a society. That’s what we’re striving for.”
Obama noted that in 31 states, child care is more expensive than in-state college tuition.
Hearing the White House recognize stories such as her own was a milestone for Ferris, she said. Although she’s built a freelance writing and editing business since she left the workforce, Ferris lamented the sacrifices she’s had to make in order to develop the part-time business.
Women lose 19 percent of their wages on average after having children, which is known as the “mommy tax.”
Although her husband worked in the North Carolina government when they had children, the state’s policies didn’t accommodate the family’s needs, Ferris said.
North Carolina received a “D” grade when the National Partnership for Women and Families analyzed states’ laws to accommodate working families. Thirty other states were marked with “D” or a failing grade, according to the report released June 19.
As for attorney Charlie Reece, when the North Carolina government’s workplace policies didn’t accommodate his family’s needs, he changed employment _ to his wife’s family business. The business, called Rho, is a medical research organization that’s since won awards for its flexible workplace policies.
“It ended up impacting both of our careers very negatively,” said his wife, Laura Helms Reece, the CEO of Rho. “So now that we’re in an environment that’s flexible, I feel like both of our careers thrive.”
Charlie Reece said he and his wife were working with regional businesses to implement more policies that are family-friendly.
“It’s really good business sense,” Laura Reece said. “It’s good for our bottom line to keep people happy and engaged.”
Charlie Reece joked that Rho would lose its “competitive advantage” if the policies caught on with other North Carolina businesses.
The Reeces and Ferris traveled to Washington as part of a delegation with Women AdvaNCe, a nonprofit organization dedicated to North Carolina women’s issues.