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7/7/2014 7:49:00 AM
Summit looks at ways to meet needs of working families
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — White House officials, business owners and parents are working together to redesign the workplace to address the needs of 21st-century families.

Corporate, political and grass-roots leaders gathered at the first White House Summit on Working Families June 23 in Washington to discuss new solutions to the problems facing struggling families nationwide.

Hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress, the summit was designed to bring policymakers, employers and ordinary citizens together to discuss real ways to "create an economy that works for all Americans," according to event organizers.

While economists and union presidents discussed the theoretical implications of fair compensation and workplace flexibility, Rodel and Rolando Lopez described how they try to provide for their four children with Supplemental Security Income, food stamps and one salary.

Although the Orlando, Florida, family never thought they would need additional help to pay their bills, Rodel Lopez described how her family's financial stability was challenged when she quit her job to support her children with special needs.

"I tried the best I could, but with the hours of my son and my daughter, who are both on the spectrum of autism, I can't work because I will get calls from school saying, 'Right now, no one can take care of them.'" Lopez told Catholic News Service. "The past couple months, I have been suffering from panic attacks because of all the bills and my husband can't do it by himself. It feels like my hands are tied and I can't do anything."

When Lopez and her family began facing financial hardship, their apartment complex manager recommended they contact Catholic Charities of Central Florida, which has helped the family pay for their rent and electricity.

While Lopez dreams of creating a therapeutic center for children with special needs, she explained how difficult it can be to try to describe the family's financial difficulties to her children.

"Every time they say they want to go to the waterpark or they want a new toy, I tell them, 'Mommy doesn't have any dollars right now, but I will let you know when I do,'" Lopez said. "You see them looking for quarters and nickels and they come up to me and say, 'Oh look! We have dollars, we can go!' Telling them that we don't have enough is very difficult for me and my husband. It's very stressful."

It is because of stories like those of the Lopez family that President Barack Obama and his administration created initiatives to help working families. In addition to a presidential memorandum encouraging federal agencies to expand access to flexible work schedules, the president has organized efforts to alleviate some of the hardships facing pregnant women in the workforce.

Although the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 forbids workplace discrimination based on pregnancy, Obama is encouraging Congress to pass the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant women, including the ability to take frequent bathroom breaks and avoid tasks involving manual labor.

During the summit, the president expressed hope that such initiatives will help people rediscover that work "gives us a sense of place and dignity, as well as income."

David Williams understands that idea very well. After his family was evicted from their home and left with no form of transportation in July 2013, he said "a little prayer" as he called organizations he found in  the phone book until he discovered the Holy Family Shelter in Indianapolis.

During his time in the emergency shelter for homeless families, Williams became closer to his children and devoted himself to finding employment because he felt it was his duty to provide for his family.

"To me, being a father and a husband means being employed, because a man should always provide for his family," Williams said. "You want to give your children an example of a man that takes care of them in every way, including being there and being a provider. I believe it's important for a boy to see that to understand what a man is supposed to do, and also for a girl to see what a man should do for her."

During the summit, although Vice President Joseph Biden admitted that he understood the plight of the working parent through personal experience, he compelled American families to seek help from local organizations rather than federal agencies.

"Lastly, what, if anything, can the federal government do to help?" Biden said. "I say lastly because all these other things that are out there in your community, if they are working really well, will create less need for federal action. Now there's need for minimum wage, there's a need for a whole range of things we've discussed, but there is an awful lot that can be done just to change the atmosphere."

Evie Jo Nagorka understands how helpful local organizations can be during a time of need.

After being diagnosed with stage II invasive ductal breast cancer in April 2013,Nagorka thought she would be back to her job as a probate paralegal in a few months. While undergoing chemotherapy, Nagorka contacted her employer only to discover that she had been replaced. She applied for temporary disability insurance.

"I filled out all the paperwork, signed everything, sent it all in, and we were denied," Nagorka said. "Even then, I thought, well, I really won't need it for a year, but it has been over a year and I'm still not back at work. That would have been really helpful, but unless you get an attorney to help you, it's just about impossible to obtain."

Having nowhere else to turn, Nagorka called the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, and asked if there were any funds to help families struggling with cancer. She was referred to Catholic Charities of Palm Beach, which helped the family pay their power bills and overdue mortgage payments.

Although she has suffered immensely, Nagorka explained how her Catholic faith allows her to maintain a positive outlook on life.

"Truly, I have learned just to trust in the Lord," Nagorka said. "When I just let it go and talk to God about what bothers me, even about day-to-day worries, it just works out. It may not happen overnight, but it all works out in the end."

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