Champions of Change Blog

  • A Piece of the Puzzle for Caring Families

    Netsy Firestein

    Netsy Firestein is being honored as a Working Family Champion of Change

    Almost thirty years ago when my older daughter was born, I got 3 months of fully paid maternity leave from the labor union where I worked. At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was. Later I learned the United States has NO national paid parental or family leave program. Today we are the only industrialized country in the world with no national policy even of paid maternity leave.

    After thirty years, the reality has changed for millions as we won family leave insurance programs in three states (California, New Jersey and Rhode Island). I led the Coalition that helped to pass the California law in 2002 that provides up to 6 weeks of partial pay through a state insurance program—almost every employee in the state makes modest contributions to the program. An employee can receive wage replacement to bond with a new child or to care for a seriously ill relative—we recently expanded the law to have a more realistic definition of family, so that it covers parents, children, spouses, siblings, parents in law, grandparents and grandchildren.

    However, this leaves out the other states. And paid family leave is only one piece of the puzzle for working families. We need to knit together our policies for caring for our families – our leave policies, our child care system and our workplace standards like paid sick days, minimum wage and work hours. Too often we address one issue at a time. But families are dealing with every issue, every day.

    Today, families are left to fend for themselves and patch together time off from work and care for their children while they work. It is seen as a “private” issue, when in fact it is a public problem that we need to fix together. 

    We have a system of care that leaves many of the caregivers in poverty – those who care for our children as well as those who care for our elders. We leave our loved ones in the care of providers who, even with higher education levels, often make close to minimum wage. What does that say about how we value families? 

    The research is there – the importance of brain development in very young children; the need for parent/child bonding; the huge benefits of early childhood education; the needs of working parents to have affordable and accessible child care; the link between good wages for child care providers/teachers and high quality care; the impact on families of low wages and erratic work schedules.

    Let’s be big and bold. Everyone says family comes first, right? So let’s put our money where our mouth is. Let’s have a national conversation about putting the pieces of the puzzle together for children and families: A national family leave insurance program; a higher minimum wage including full time hours for those who want it; paid sick days; and a well-funded, high quality child care and early education system at little or no cost to parents.

    Netsy Firestein is a Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Previously she worked with the California Work and Family Coalition to pass paid family leave and other family friendly laws in California.

  • Making the American Dream Attainable for Everyone

    ReShonda Young

    ReShonda Young is being honored as a Working Family Champion of Change

    It was a great surprise to receive a phone call from the White House, notifying me that I had been chosen as a Working Families Champion of Change. As I go about my business, doing what I believe to be the right thing to do for our employees, I really never thought I was doing anything special. My goal has always been to make sure that our workers have a fair shot at living the American Dream. The "American Dream" should be something that is attainable for everyone who chooses to work hard and play by the rules. 

    When I started fighting for health care reform in 2009, I did so because the failed system that was in place made health insurance unaffordable for my dad's small business to provide health insurance for our employees. The policies we were shown also denied health benefits for several of our employees due to pre-existing medical conditions, or for being overweight. Knowing that most of our employees had no health insurance in place, and had no way of paying for it on their own, was a huge concern for us. We knew that an illness or an accident could put our employees in a situation where they had to choose between getting the medical care that they need, and paying their rent/mortgage, utilities, or buying food. Those aren't choices anyone should have to make. Working with the Iowa Citizens Action Network and the Main Street Alliance allowed me to have a voice. Being able to testify before Congress about the need for health care reform in 2009 attracted enough attention for us to be able to get better options presented to us, and a health insurance plan in place for our employees that did not exclude their pre-existing conditions.

    Another area that has been a huge issue for me in trying to make sure that not just our workers, but workers in general, have a fair shot at attaining the American Dream is bringing attention to the need for an increase in the minimum wage. Although we do not pay our employees minimum wage, we are directly affected by the minimum wage. Minimum wage jobs put us at a disadvantage when we are bidding for jobs against employers who pay minimum wage. It also affects my retail business. A lot of minimum wage workers don't have the disposable income to be able to patronize my business. We often are asked if we accept food stamps, which shows there is interest in our product. Unfortunately, we do not meet the guidelines to be able to accept food stamps.

    Finally, there is a great need for things to change for women. When a woman is working the same job as a man, with the same education and qualifications as a man, and is only earning $0.77 to $0.78 to every $1 the man is earning, we have an issue that is not only a woman's issue, but a family issue, and an economic issue. I have fought to make sure women at our companies are paid the same as our male counterparts. That has not always been the case, but awareness is key, which is why I believe the Paycheck Fairness Act is critically important.

    I will continue to fight for these issues, and others. As long as equality is not a reality, none of us are truly able to live the lives we are meant to live.

    ReShonda Young is the Operations Manager and Corporate VP for her dad's businesses, Alpha Express Inc. and Alpha Services Inc., based out of Waterloo, IA. She is also the founder and owner of Popcorn Heaven, a gourmet popcorn store with headquarters in Waterloo, IA.

  • My parents couldn’t earn sick days. Now I’m making sure everyone in New Jersey can.

    Analilia Mejia

    Analilia Mejia is being honored as a Working Family Champion of Change

    In New Jersey, 1.2 million workers are unable to care for themselves or their family when illness strikes. This creates an impossible situation for the parent who faces a shortened paycheck and a sick child who should be cared for at home. It also hurts local economies, because every shortened paycheck means groceries left unpurchased. And it threatens our public health when a sick worker feels forced to come into work.

    As a child, I often watched my parents make that impossible calculus: care for my sister and myself or make the mortgage payment that month. Take my grandfather to the doctor, and risk a smaller paycheck, or push an appointment back. This issue hits home for far too many in my home state of New Jersey. Medical care goes unsought and illness is spread unnecessarily.

    All of this can be prevented with a simple policy that allows all workers to earn time they can take when the inevitable happens.

    Two years ago, advocates across New Jersey decided it was time to tackle a problem that plagues far too many workers, particularly those who are most vulnerable due to low wage work, or at the forefront of public health in the service sector industries.

    Our strategy is simple: bring the fight to local voters, and show state legislators that the policy works and the voters stand behind it. In September 2013, Jersey City became the first city to pass an earned sick time law. The bill included a call for a study, which researchers released last week. It proves that productivity actually increases for employers as a result of mandated compensated earned sick day policies.  In 2014, five New Jersey municipal councils passed identical earned sick time laws. Each of these victories helped build momentum towards a statewide bill, and in fact led to New Jersey Assembly and Senate leadership announcing their renewed support for the legislation and advancing the state bill through the legislative process. 

    Next, we set out to prove that local voters had a strong appetite for the proposal. In November of 2014, we placed the question on the ballot in two municipalities, where it garnered 75% and 86% of voter support. Because of our strategy, more New Jerseyans are better informed on the policy, elected officials now view it as a critical issue for their constituents, and advocates have local data to show that we all do better when workers have the ability to care for themselves and their families and still make ends meet. These victories have also made a meaningful difference in the lives of over 150,000 workers across our great state who can now breathe a little easier when illness strikes.

    With President Obama’s leadership, we hope to make earned sick days a reality for all Americans.

    I feel honored every day to lead New Jersey Working Families, and continue to fight to bring equity and fairness for all working families across this state. We fight for a New Jersey in which democracy matters more than corporate money, in which workers make a family sustaining wage and in which the decisions of public officials reflect the values and priorities of the voters who elected them. I do this work not only for the millions who make this state great, but also for the child I used to be. I wasn’t able to help my parents grapple with the struggles that low wage work and poverty created for them, but I sure can help ease those struggles for others today.

    Analilia Mejia is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, a statewide nonpartisan organization that seeks to promote and defend the interest of New Jersey’s working families.

  • Kids: Our Best Product – Participating in the Champions of Change for Working Families event at the White House

    Rose Marcario

    Rose Marcario is being honored as a Working Family Champion of Change

    It’s an honor to be recognized by President Obama for our commitments to working families. I share this gratitude with Malinda Chouinard, who has always made Patagonia a great place for families, and with Anita Furtaw, who developed an award-winning on-site child development program for our Ventura headquarters 30 years ago, and has run it ever since.

    We’re happy to serve as a model for other companies who want to do the right thing by their employees. It’s a necessary element of doing business in our time. To support our families, Patagonia provides company-paid health care and sick time for all employees, paid maternity and paternity leave, access to on-site childcare for many employees, and financial support to those who do not have access, among other benefits.

    I came to Patagonia in 2008 after working in businesses where I had to relegate my own desire for social and environmental change to nonworking hours. It was my hope, in coming to Patagonia, that I’d be able to engage my whole self as a person and a citizen in my workaday life. But I was also skeptical. I wanted to see for myself whether the company’s values were possible to live by in a competitive business.

    Patagonia’s child-care program was my first visible proof of this possibility and it is still—despite all our work to improve social practices and reduce environmental harm in the supply chain—the most striking.

    Some benefits of onsite childcare are obvious. The children are lively, curious and happy. As Anita Furtaw has said, “When kids are in the same place and have the ability to trust the adults around them to love them and care for them, they have the energy to do what they need to do in all areas of development. They become more articulate and tend to have higher self-esteem.”

    The benefits to the parents and grandparents are also visible: they can see, and be with, their kids during the day and have an engaging work life without sacrificing their lives as parents. Our program also includes traveling caregiver support for those with kids less than a year old.

    One benefit is less obvious: the presence of the children transforms the workplace into a community for all employees. The kids and the sounds of their laughter are reminders that it is the purpose of work to honor our human as well as our business responsibilities.

    Business results from these investments are significant. For example, employee turnover costs companies up to 150 percent of the base salary of the person exiting. An astonishing 43 percent of women with children leave careers or take extended time away from work after having kids. At Patagonia, nearly all employees return to work after a standard parental leave.

    After more than 30 years, we’ve begun to hire quite a few kids who grew up with us. And Anita Furtaw, a tireless champion for our employees and their kids, recently laid the groundwork for a similar center at our facility in Reno to support 400 additional employees.

    We face so many challenges today as citizens and businesspeople. In a changing world, it’s vital to be an agent of change—and to have that capability in the workplace as well as in private life. I’ve been able to realize that possibility at Patagonia, where I can put my heart and soul into my work. The credit goes, in part, to the kids of my talented colleagues who keep us all grounded. Any business that wants that commitment from its people should take note—and follow suit.

    Rose Marcario is the President and CEO of Patagonia, Inc. and Patagonia Works.

  • Working matters. Families matter. Paid sick days matter.

    Melissa Broome

    Melissa Broome is being honored as a Working Family Champion of Change

    It’s an all too familiar story understood by every working parent.  In the wee hours of the morning, you’re jolted awake by the sound of cries on the baby monitor. Sleep deprivation is often an uninvited friend, but this time is different.  The crying is different. Something is wrong.

    We’ve all been there. 

    For me, it was an October morning. My baby girl was not quite 18-months-old.  When I went in to get her, she was clammy with fever and had thrown up in her crib. I knew right away I wouldn’t be going into the office that day. I made the choice to stay home, and thank God that I did. 

    In a matter of hours, my daughter’s fever spiked dramatically, leading to a febrile seizure.  She was in my arms when the seizure happened. She was in my arms during that terrifying ambulance ride to the hospital. She was in my arms when the doctors eventually assured me that she was going to be OK. 

    Nothing can prepare you for the excruciating moments of terror that come when your child faces a health emergency. Yet, looking back on that day, I know that I am one of the lucky ones.  My ample supply of paid sick days meant that I didn’t think twice about staying home with my daughter.     

    For too many working parents across our great nation, this is not the case. When I juxtapose my experience with the experience of moms like Monica in Seattle, I am struck by the similarities and haunted by the differences. Immediately after Monica’s youngest son spiked a fever that led to a seizure, she had to decide to report to work or deal with the repercussions of not getting paid. Her choice was one that no parent should have to make.

    Stories like Monica’s are happening across our country every day.  Hardworking moms and dads have to choose between staying home with their sick children and earning the income they need to keep their families afloat.

    In 2015, we know that in the majority of our country’s households, both parents are working outside the home. And yet, our public policies continue to reflect a 1960s mentality.  We remain the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t guarantee workers the ability to earn paid sick days.  Forty percent of American workers – more than 43 million people – are denied this basic workplace protection. 

    In my home state of Maryland, more than 700,000 workers are unable to earn a single paid sick day. We launched Working Matters: The Maryland Campaign for Paid Sick Days in 2012. Since then, we have grown to become a powerful statewide coalition of more than 135 businesses, organizations and faith groups committed to passing the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act. The legislation, which was cosponsored this year by nearly 100 members of the Maryland General Assembly, would allow workers to earn up to seven paid sick days per year. 

    While there are many political issues that divide the American people, we are undoubtedly united by an innate desire to care for our families.  Thankfully for Monica, Seattle passed a paid sick days ordinance in 2011. Policymakers in Maryland – and throughout the country – need to follow suit.     

    Melissa Broome is acting executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF) where she helps to lead Working Matters: The Maryland Campaign for Paid Sick Days.

  • Taking Risks in the Name of Change

    Anne Wojcicki

    Anne Wojcicki is being honored as a Champion of Change in the Fight Against Parkinson's Disease.

    I am humbled to be named one of the White House Champions of Change and to be in the company of such luminaries in the quest to conquer Parkinson’s.  

    Taking risks in the name of change is important, especially in health care.

    I co-founded 23andMe with the belief that the combination of science, social media and you, the consumer, could change research and ultimately create new paths for treatment and prevention. In a short time we have built what is now the world’s largest community of genotyped Parkinson’s patients. This has allowed researchers to discover dozens of new genetic associations for Parkinson’s, and helped give scientists new insight into the disease .Our researchers are investigating not just the genetics that increases one’s risk for Parkinson’s, but what genetic variants may be protective against the disease. We have partnered with non-profit organizations, academic researchers and pharmaceutical companies all in a multi-front effort to make breakthroughs.

    I am most inspired by the members of our Parkinson’s research community. They contribute something far more valuable than money: information about themselves. By enabling individuals to come together and share their genetic information and information about themselves, we have the opportunity to make new discoveries and cures at a much faster pace. This is what most excites me about the novel research platform 23andMe pioneered.

    Directly involving consumers in researchers is new, and what we have learned is that people are eager to participate in research. Sometimes the best of humanity comes out when we are sick; no one wants to see another suffer in illness. When 23andMe asks people for information about themselves to contribute to research on disease, we see significant participation.  So what I have learned after eight years is that there is incredible opportunity before us to gather enough knowledge from the community that we can transform our understanding of health and disease.

    My own family has a genetic risk for Parkinson’s, so this mission is personal. Discovering how to prevent or how to treat Parkinson's disease is important for my family and my children. I don’t want to wait for the system to come up with an answer. I want to be part of the solution.

    I want to thank the 600,000+ individuals who are currently participating in 23andMe research. They have helped power breakthrough discoveries in Parkinson’s and other diseases. That is incredibly important to me, and hopefully the information I have contributed about me will power the discoveries that help the disease research that is incredibly important to you. We’re all in this together.

    Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe, helped co-found the direct to consumer genetics testing company in 2006 after a decade spent investing in healthcare. 23andMe has built one of the world’s largest databases of individual genetic information.

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