Baby clothing company faces criticism over handling of employee’s maternity leave

(NEW YORK) — A children’s clothing brand is facing criticism for the way it handled one employee’s request to work remotely while her newborn son was treated in the neonatal intensive care unit.

The controversy erupted into public view last week when Ying Liu, the founder and CEO of Kyte Baby, a company that sells infant sleep sacks and clothing made with bamboo material, took to TikTok to issue an apology to the employee, identified as Marissa, whose parental leave request was denied.

“Hey guys, it’s Ying. I wanted to hop on here to sincerely apologize to Marissa for how her parental leave was communicated and handled in the midst of her incredible journey of adoption and starting a family,” Liu, a mother of five, according to the Kyte Baby website, said in the 90-second video, posted to Kyte Baby’s TikTok account on Jan. 18. “I have been trying to reach out to her to apologize directly as well.”

Liu said in the video that Kyte Baby “prides itself” on being a “family-oriented company,” and said she would be reviewing the company’s human resources “policy and procedures,” in light of the incident.

The employee, Marissa, reportedly adopted a son who was hospitalized in the NICU following his birth in late December. ABC News has not been able to reach the employee for comment.

Liu’s apology, which received more than two million views, drew criticisms from some TikTok users who characterized it as inauthentic and not going far enough to support the employee. Other commenters threatened to boycott the brand.

Shortly after posting the first video, Liu posted a second video on TikTok in which she acknowledged the first apology was “scripted” and “wasn’t sincere.”

She explained in the second video that she was the leader who “vetoed” Marissa’s request to work remotely while her son was in the NICU, saying, “I own 100% of that.”

“When I think back, this was a terrible decision,” Liu said. “I was insensitive, selfish and was only focused on the fact that her job had always been done on-site and I did not see the possibility of doing it remotely.”

Liu also said in the video, which received six million views, that she agreed with people who said Kyte Baby needs to set an example as a women-led business focused on baby products.

“I think a lot of comments are right. We need to set the example because we are in the baby business,” she said. “I want to [go] above and beyond in protecting women and giving them the right protection and benefits when they’re having babies.”

Spotlight on lack of protections, flexibility for parents

The Kyte Baby controversy has turned a spotlight on the lack of paid protections for new parents in the United States.

Currently, the U.S. is part of only a small pool of countries worldwide that do not guarantee paid leave.

Just one-quarter of all U.S. workers have access to paid family leave from their employer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Under current U.S. policy — the Family and Medical Leave Act — employees who qualify can take time off to care for a newborn or loved one or recover from illness without fear of losing their job, but in many cases the leave is unpaid.

Some commenters on TikTok also raised the issue of a lack of protections for adoptive parents in the U.S., questioning whether the outcome would have been different had the Kyte Baby employee carried her baby.

The backlash against Kyte Baby denying its employee’s request for remote work also comes as working moms continue to rebuild following the coronavirus pandemic, during which approximately 3.5 million moms of school-age children had to leave active work, shift into paid or unpaid leave, lost their job or exited the labor market altogether, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

While many women had to leave the workforce due to child care issues, the pandemic also highlighted the benefits of remote work, particularly for working moms. Since last year, the participation rate for women in the workforce between the ages of 25 and 54 has been at an all-time high, according to researchers from the Brookings Institution. Researchers attributed that rise, in part, to the increased ability to telework.

Despite those figures, many employers have instituted or continued to push for in-office mandates over the past year, arguing that returning to the office contributes to greater productivity, collaboration and overall workplace culture. Cities themselves say the shift in remote work at some companies has also forced them to reconsider what to do with empty or unfilled office buildings, with some attempting to convert unused space into housing.

Kyte Baby pledges to change its maternity leave policy

While much of the backlash against Kyte Baby focused on the company doing too little, too late, the company was applauded by some for apologizing and course-correcting in wake of the outcry.

“We all make mistakes. The fact that you are owning it and making it right is what matters. Change comes from learning, learning comes from mistakes,” wrote one commenter.

A spokesperson for Kyte Baby told ABC News in a statement Monday that the company is revising its maternity leave policy.

The spokesperson said the employee in question, Marissa, has “declined” the company’s offer to return to her position at Kyte Baby.

“We continue to apologize to both Marissa and our Kyte Baby community for the handling of her maternity leave. Over the last few days our team has been working to make changes to ensure that something like this does not happen again. We are revising our maternity policy to give new parents, both biological and nonbiological, more time off and creating a better process to support our employees,” the spokesperson said.

According to the spokesperson, Marissa worked with Kyte Baby as an on-site employee in the company’s photo studio, and had been with them for “a little over seven months” when she made the remote work request.

“Based on our maternity policy at the time, all parents, whether biological or non-biological, who have worked for the company for at least six months, but less than one year, receive two weeks paid maternity time and are required to sign a contract saying that they will return to their job for six months after their paid leave is complete. Employees with the company over one year receive four weeks paid maternity time and are required to sign a contract saying that they will return to their job for six months after their paid leave is complete,” the spokesperson said.

“Marissa was offered the standard package with two weeks maternity time, but given her son’s situation, was unable to sign the six-month contract. She did propose a remote option for her job that, in the moment, did not work for us since she worked a largely on-site position in our photo studio. We let her know that her job would be here if and when she opted to return. Marissa opted to leave at this point. However, upon reflection we should have taken more steps to accommodate her situation,” the spokesperson said.

“We’ve since realized that Kyte Baby needs to stand by their values of being a woman owned, family company,” they added. “We have reached out to Marissa directly and let her know that her job is here if and when she is ready to come back. We have also offered to work with her on a remote position. At this time Marissa has declined our offer. We are revising our maternity policy by Feb. 1 and will be updating our internal team at that time.”

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