Years ago, when Denise Morrison told her boss she planned to take a temporary leave from work to have her first baby, she knew this wouldn’t be welcome news to the higher-ups.
She said she was among the first of her female colleagues to have a baby.
"I told my boss, ‘Pretend I have a broken leg,’” Morrison, now president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “He said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m going to be out for about six weeks. I can still read my mail, I can still work, I just can’t go into the stores.’ He looked at me and said, ‘You don’t have a broken leg,’ and I said, ‘Yes, but I’m pregnant.’”
Now Morrison is trying to make things easier for the next generation of parents. On Thursday, she announced Campbell’s first company-wide parental leave policy, a gender-neutral package that guarantees 10 paid weeks off for a primary caregiver, and two for a secondary caregiver, after a birth or adoption. The policy is flexible, meaning she has instructed the human resources department to be open to individual arrangements to meet employees’ needs.
“We’ve been watching the market,” Morrison said, referring to the groundswell of companies announcing stronger parental leave policies over the last year. “We are all about millennial mothers, and this is really good for consumers. Putting those factors together, I just said it’s time.”
It’s not just mothers, though critics say requiring parents to designate a “primary" caregiver may mean the so-called parental policy will still effectively be about women. Offering less time to the “secondary” caregiver -- in most cases, the father -- can also make it harder for primary caregivers to restart their careers after going on leave. A recent study of 22,000 companies around the world found that countries with the highest percentages of women in leadership, including at the boardroom and executive levels, offered fathers 11 times more paternity leave days than countries with the lowest percentages of female leaders.
Still, Campbell’s gender-neutral program may be more welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer families.
“Families today are a mosaic,” Morrison said. “Families will decide different roles in their lives. The expectation is that we as a company will be flexible.”
Campbell’s new policy may be inclusive, but it’s still not particularly generous. Netflix, which last year ignited corporate focus on parental leave with its own new policy, offers up to a year off. Facebook provides four months for moms and dads. Music streaming giant Spotify gives up to six months of leave. Etsy, the hand-crafted goods seller, announced a “basically perfect” policy last month, offering men and women up to 26 paid weeks off. Even The Nation, a magazine struggling with the drop in print advertising, now gives staffers up to 16 weeks of paid parental leave.
What makes Campbell’s move notable is that the company is a 147-year-old food giant, not exactly a cultural bedfellow with 21st-century tech firms or leftist magazines. The parental leave announcement marks yet another step in the Camden, New Jersey-based behemoth’s transformation under Morrison.
In many ways, that journey began with the acquisition of baby-food brand Plum Organics in June 2013.
Campbell bought the startup just as Plum was seeking to become certified as a so-called benefit corporation. Benefit corporations must meet the rigid environmental and social good standards outlined by the nonprofit B Lab. The designation provides companies with the same thing that LEED certification brings buildings: a public indicator that they're one of the good guys. A month after Campbell's acquisition, Plum became the first benefit corporation ever owned by a public company.
“In doing that, it set a higher standard for our whole company,” Morrison said. “There’s been a steady drumbeat of change.”
Until now, that change has been most evident in Campbell's food policies. Last July, the company vowed to remove all artificial flavors and colors from its foods by 2018. In January, the company said it would begin labeling all U.S. food products that contain genetically modified organisms and even publicly advocated for a national mandatory GMO label. As the name implies, Plum Organics built its brand selling non-GMO foods.
Campbell’s parental leave announcement marks the first major initiative that emulates the way its Plum subsidiary treats its workers.
Plum Organics had offered eight weeks of paid maternity leave and two weeks of paid paternity leave. Now, women or men who are primary caregivers at Plum can take 10 paid weeks off. Though secondary caregivers' leave remains unchanged at two weeks, the gender designations go away.
“We think about our benefits for parents holistically, meaning we’re not just looking at parental leave -- we’re also doing everything we can to make sure our employees are being fully supported once they’re back in the office,” a Plum Organics spokeswoman told HuffPost.
Campbell may be getting with that part of the program, too. The company plans to expand the daycare nursery at its Camden headquarters, which has been there for the last 25 years. A Campbell spokeswoman declined to comment on other pending workplace initiatives.
“If we make it easier and more flexible for women and men to have good careers and good families,” Morrison said, “then that’s a step in the right direction.”
Still, as HuffPost’s Emily Peck explained last year, corporate America has a long way to go.
Yet for all the positive momentum on leave, the data still looks bleak. An overwhelming majority of employers don’t offer paid leave. Most states don’t offer paid leave. The U.S. unpaid leave law — the Family and Medical Leave Act — only covers 60 percent of workers.
About 9 percent of workers who take time off to care for a family member end up on public assistance, according to Labor Department data cited by the New Republic. The Family Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D–Conn.) that would pay for federally mandated leave by taking a few cents out of employee paychecks, is stalled out.
So, for now, change may have to come on a company-by-company basis.
“I talk publicly about the seismic shifts happening not only in demographics but in family,” Morrison said. “For the first time at Campbell, we’re seeing that shift live in our workforce and in our world headquarters and now company-wide.”