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Obama pushes for family-friendly workplaces at campaign-like 'summit'

By Annika McGinnis and Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Monday directed the federal government to give workers more leeway in determining their schedules, part of his goal to make U.S. workplaces more family-friendly - and a broad pitch to Democratic voters ahead of November elections.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and other top administration officials took turns telling their personal stories about the struggle to balance work and family at a campaign-style "summit" stacked with cheering Democratic supporters at a posh Washington hotel.

"I remember taking the night shift when Malia was born and when Sasha was born and being up at two in the morning and changing diapers and burping them and singing to them," Obama said, talking about his daughters, who are now teenagers.

"The point is, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off," he said. "I want every father and every child to have that opportunity."

Obama issued an order requiring federal agency heads to expand flexible workplace policies as much as possible. The goal is to make it easier for parents or workers to take care of family needs and to enable more people to find and keep jobs.

Praising businesses that have taken similar steps, Obama said family leave should be available across the country.

But the White House stopped short of making specific legislative proposals to provide family leave. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there were "a lot of different ways for addressing this problem" and the summit was more about having a "national conversation."

Obama said the event was not just about promoting ideas that are popular with women, who make up a big part of the Democratic base, ahead of November midterms.

But he urged people at the event to push Congress to do more.

"As long as Congress refuses to act on these policies, we need you to raise your voices," he said.

Obama met with a group of chief executives from companies including Goldman Sachs and Johnson & Johnson, chatting for about 45 minutes about their strategies. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for instance, offers employees an unlimited number of sick days that they can also use to look after family members who are ill. Johnson & Johnson's health encouragement programs lead both to healthier workers and more than $500 savings per employee each year, a White House report released Monday said.

"We need legislation, but we don't have to wait for Congress to act in order to apply some of the lessons from some of these companies who are doing outstanding work," Obama told reporters while he sat with the CEOs.

Faced with a Republican-led House of Representatives, the president's chances of passing legislation are slight. He has declared that he will pursue his agenda through unilateral actions such as executive orders and official memos.

But Republicans said Obama and his Democrats have ignored measures they have put forward that would provide flexibility at work, such one by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell that would allow people who work from home to claim a deduction for a home office even if they are caring for a child while working.

"Because of President Obama's failed policies, too many middle-class families either aren't working at all or are barely getting by with stagnant wages and higher costs on everything from gas to groceries," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican Speaker John Boehner.

(Editing by Nick Zieminski and Eric Walsh)

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