Jan 24, 2024 - Economy

"Terrible decision": Baby brand's maternity leave policy sparks PR disaster

Illustration of a baby bottle in the shape of an hour glass

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facing an outcry on TikTok, the CEO of a small baby clothes company issued two public apologies last week for denying a new mother's request to work from home while her baby was in neonatal intensive care.

Why it matters: The public relations disaster at Kyte Baby, a Texas-based business that bills itself as "woman-owned," is a clear example of how the lack of paid leave policies in the U.S. leaves mothers scrambling.

What happened: Marissa Hughes worked in marketing at Kyte Baby for less than a year when she adopted a baby boy, born prematurely, at only 22 weeks.

  • Hughes could've taken two weeks for maternity leave, if she committed to a six-month contract upon her return, according to the statement Kyte sent to Axios.
  • Given her son's situation, Hughes said she didn't know if she could come back in person, and proposed a remote option. It was denied. She was effectively out of a job.
  • Kyte said she "opted to leave."

What they're saying: "This was a terrible decision," CEO Ying Liu said in her second apology video, where she acknowledged the first one "wasn't sincere."

  • Liu said she was the one who vetoed Hughes' request. "I was insensitive, selfish, and only focused on the fact that her job had always been done on-site."
  • The company would review its policy and procedures and come up with something better, she said. "We need to set the example because we are in the baby business."

State of play: In most developed countries, instead of fighting to work from home just two weeks after adopting a child, Hughes would've had paid leave as a government benefit.

  • But the U.S. only has an unpaid parental leave law  and it doesn't kick in until you've worked at a company of a large enough size for more than a year. Hughes wasn't eligible.
  • Most of the handful of states that do have paid parental leave on the books offer 12 weeks off, funded by a small payroll tax and typically paying some portion of your salary. Those policies also typically cover leave to care for close relatives, including children of any age.
  • In Texas, Kyte Baby's home state, parental leave is left up to the employer — and the leave plans in the private sector vary widely in terms of what they cover if they exist at all.
  • Kyte said it offers two weeks leave to those at the company for less than a year, and four weeks for employees with a year or more under their belt — provided they agree to come back for at least six months.

The big picture: The Kyte dustup "was just further evidence of how the market will never solve this problem alone," Dawn Huckelbridge, founding director of Paid Leave for All, tells Axios.

💭 Our thought bubble: This isn't a story about remote work; it's about inadequate paid parental and family leave. (And also the art of corporate TikTok apologies, as Axios' Eleanor Hawkins explains.)

  • Two weeks is not enough time to recover from childbirth nor to deal with the arrival of a newly adopted infant, according to most experts, especially when the baby needs urgent medical care.

Between the lines: Employers are slowly getting better at this, as expectations shift for how workplaces treat parents — and the labor market stays tight.

  • Though only 27% of workers in the private sector have access to paid parental leave, per government data, that number has more than doubled over the past decade.
  • 1 in 5 companies offering paid parental leave plan to make their policies more generous in the next two years, reports Axios' Tina Reed from a new survey by global advisory and brokerage firm Willis Towers Watson.
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