Amanda Rothschild found out she’d be hosting the president at her coffee shop and café on Thursday, Jan. 15, about 90 minutes before his arrival. While there was a rush of emotions when White House staff told her President Barack Obama would be coming to Charmington’s in Baltimore City, where she is managing partner, Rothschild was mostly prepared.
Knowing the president was in town to speak at the Senate Democratic Issues Conference and that she was set to meet with senior White House staff, finding out it would be the president himself wasn’t a shocker.
“I kind of screamed and said to the coordinator, ‘Can I just go ask them to clean the store?’ That was my very first reaction,” she said.
Obama met with Rothschild, school nurse Mary Stein, businesswoman Vika Jordan and U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski at the Remington business to discuss paid sick leave and family leave.
“Now, one of our biggest problems that we have is that there are 43 million Americans who don’t get paid sick leave, which when you think about it, is a pretty astonishing statistic,” Obama told the group, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by the White House press office.
Charmington’s was the backdrop for the meeting, not only because of Rothschild’s advocacy on minimum wage and sick leave, but because the business is an example of what the president hopes to see across the country.
“We started paying sick leave from the time we opened,” said Rothschild. “We were paying above minimum wage from the time we opened and we have incrementally increased our wages over time, added health insurance after we had opened and stabilized our business.”
For about two years now, Rothschild has been attending Senate hearings and other discussions at the federal level on issues of minimum wage and paid sick and family leave. She’s most recently been working with the Working Matters coalition, which advocates for paid sick leave in Maryland.
On the day of his Baltimore meeting, the president unveiled a new policy allowing federal workers up to six weeks of sick leave, and is pressing Congress to make sick leave mandatory in the United States. He told the women at Charmington’s he would advocate for a seven-day sick leave policy and urge employers to start adopting policies. He also told them the White House plans to help cities and states study the feasibility of paid family leave.
“That kind of flexibility ultimately is going to make our economy stronger and is just one piece of what needs to be a really aggressive push to ensure that if you work hard in this country then you can make it,” Obama said.
Rothschild said the president was casual, friendly and interested in hearing the women’s stories. She told him about Charmington’s policies and how sick leave benefits its employees. He asked her what the government could do to help small businesses make sick leave a priority, to which she suggested flexible policies that can be adapted to different industries’ and companies’ needs.
She also countered the argument that paid sick leave policies would strain small businesses, saying that view looks at employees as raw costs when they should be seen as assets.
“Because of the way we run our business, we have such low turnover that we really get investment out of our employees,” she said, something the president noted in his talk.
Obama headed from Charmington’s to downtown Baltimore, where he met with Senate Democrats. While it was a closed-door session, reports said
the president vowed to fight Republican efforts to roll back some of his efforts and to veto further Iran sanctions, something with which several high-powered Democrats disagree.
Maryland Sens. Mikulski and Ben Cardin said the conference’s focus was strategy in two areas: how legislators can help job and income growth and what they’re going to do now that they are not in the majority.
“We’re not going to be the party of ‘no,’” Mikulski, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said via email. “We’re going to work with Republicans where we can. But where we can’t, we’re going to fight for our families, for our country and for national security.”
“I’ve reached out to my Republican colleagues. We’ll find, I hope, opportunities where we can advance issues,” he said. “We’ll start with the budget issues, issues on transportation, maybe energy even.”
In addition to strategy, Cardin, who sits on the environment and public works and foreign relations committees, said the Senators role play to anticipate how they think some debates will go. The conference also gives the legislators a chance for casual interaction, and spouses attend as well.
As for the location, both Maryland senators said Baltimore was deliberately chosen.
“This is a city with a lot of immigrant neighborhoods,” said Cardin, who talked about his grandparents immigrating to America.
Added Mikulski, “We thought we should hold it in a place that reflects our party’s strong commitment to cities. We felt it should be where there’s a Democratic stronghold and where the chief executive is a Democrat. Baltimore is all of those and is a city with a lot to offer.”