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By Kyung M. Song, The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration Monday hosted its first White House Summit on Working Families, part of a national dialogue about how to update workplace policies for modern families that is already reshaping wage and work laws across the country.

The summit brought together academics, executives, labor leaders, and others on ways to encourage cultural and political shifts to enable employees to earn sustainable wages and to better juggle the clashing demands between work and home.

The daylong event, at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., was meant to help fuse a patchwork of local, state, and federal rules and laws into broader national strategy. The focus on working families also is a key part of the Democrats’ agenda heading into the 2014 midterm elections this November.

Among Monday’s speakers was Makini Howell, an owner of Plum Restaurants, which operates several vegan eateries in Seattle. Howell said Seattle’s new $15-an-hour minimum wage ordinance and mandatory paid sick leave rules are a part of a compact that can benefit both employers and employees.

Employers “can care about the advancement of working families and still make a profit,” Howell said, to big cheers from the audience. “If you have a worker that dedicates five, 10 years of their lives to my success … why not pay a sick day?”

High-powered working parents offered candid stories about ways they balanced their professional and personal lives — or not.

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama, recalled sitting in a business meeting 28 years ago, two weeks away from her due date and in desperate need of a bathroom break. The workplace back then wasn’t much hospitable for pregnant women, so Jarrett fibbed about her reason for bolting from the room.

Jarrett rued that the United States remains almost a sole exception around the world in lacking mandatory paid maternity leave. A survey of 185 countries and territories by a United Nations agency last month found that only two other governments — Oman and Papua New Guinea — do not pay a portion of a new mother’s lost income or require employers to do so.

Mark Weinberger, Chairman and Chief Executive of EY, a global accounting and professional services firm once known as Ernst & Young, said he once bailed out of a business dinner in China in order to keep a promise to be with his daughter during her driver’s exam.

Weinberger believes it’s imperative for businesses to embrace policies that help retain committed employees. He said 60 percent of EY’s worldwide workforce of 180,000 are members of Generation Y, people mostly in their 20s. Nearly 40 percent of those millennials, Weinberger said, would leave an employer that isn’t flexible about schedules, family leaves, and other matters.

Weinberger said such wishes transcend gender.

“Women don’t want to be singled out, and men don’t want to be left out,” he said.

The summit was sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Labor, and the White House Council on Women and Girls.

It follows a series of actions by the Obama administration and Democrats to promote, among other issues, higher minimum wages, pay parity for women and universal preschool.

In February, Obama signed an executive order to raise the federal minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 an hour on Jan. 1 for employees of federal contractors, ranging from defense companies like Boeing to janitorial and food-services firms.

Photo: dcJohn via Flickr

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