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Second Shift

What's Missing From Amazon's New Parental Leave Policy

Amazon's new extended paid leave policy is generous, but putting a policy in place doesn’t assure that staff will be encouraged to use it.

[Photo: Flickr usr Ellyn]

Amazon made a big announcement yesterday about parental leave. This comes after the firestorm following the New York Times article on Amazon's office culture (including how unfriendly it was to new parents).

In an email message forwarded to Jezebel, Amazon is now going to offer up to 20 weeks of parental leave for birth mothers, and six weeks for all other new parents. The policy includes a new "leave-share" program aimed to help Amazon employees share their leave time with partners who may not have a leave policy at their workplace. There's also a "ramp-back" program, which is designed help new parents transition back to work.

Here are the details:

Expanding Maternity and Parental Leave

Amazon now offers up to 20 paid weeks of leave, the ability to share up to six weeks of paid leave with a spouse or partner, and a flexible return to work program. These benefits apply to all full-time hourly and salaried employees, including 100,000+ Fulfillment Center and Customer Service Associates.

Enhanced Leaves for Mothers and Fathers
Birth mothers can now take up to four weeks of paid prepartum medical leave followed by 10 weeks of paid maternity leave. Birth mothers and all other new parents who have been at Amazon for a year or more can also take a new six-week paid parental leave. RSUs will continue to vest during the new prepartum and maternity leaves. All together, these policies provide birth mothers who have been at Amazon more than one year with up to 20 weeks of leave.

Leave Share Program
One thing we hear from new mothers at Amazon is that they wish their spouse or partner could also take paid time off from work. That can be difficult because more than 80% of American companies don’t provide any paid parental leave. To help families address the financial challenge of taking unpaid time off, we’ve invented a new program called Leave Share, which allows you to share all or a portion of your six-week parental leave with a spouse or partner who doesn’t have paid leave through his or her employer.

Leave Share will work the same way for Amazon fathers and same-sex couples. Leave Share is a novel program and we hope it helps provide you and your family with additional flexibility during this special time.

Ramp Back Program
In addition, we’ve created the Ramp Back Program for birth mothers and primary caregivers. With this program, you can ease back to work with up to eight weeks of flexible time. You can use the program at your discretion in the way that works best for you—choosing from part-time options of 50% or 75%.

More Flexibility
You also get to choose when you take your Parental Leave under this new plan—either in one continuous six-week period, or split into two periods within 12 months of birth or adoption.

Policy versus Reality

The announcement comes a few months after CEO Jeff Bezos responded to the New York Times exposé about Amazon’s workplace culture, saying, "I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the New York Times would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company."

Yet while the company’s SVP of global corporate affairs took a swing at the New York Times coverage on Medium, claiming that the reporters didn’t fact check properly, a former Amazon employee named Julia Cheiffetz took to the same platform to write about her experience of giving birth and subsequently being diagnosed with cancer while working at the e-commerce giant.

She wrote about how Amazon had terminated her health insurance while she was on leave (then offered COBRA coverage) and placed her on a performance improvement plan when she returned after five months of leave. In company parlance, she says it was akin to being told your job was at risk of being terminated. Cheiffetz eventually quit.

Other stories emerged, including one of an hourly fulfillment center worker who collapsed during his shift and died after being taken to the hospital. A British trade union also stepped into the spotlight when it claimed that some of the 7,000-plus Amazon workers at its U.K. distribution centers were becoming mentally and physically ill from pressure to be an "above-average Amazon robot all the time."

While this new extended paid leave policy will apply to fulfillment center workers as well as office employees, it should be noted that it won't extend to Amazon's hundreds of thousands of temporary and hourly workers.

How Amazon's Leave Stacks Up

It’s difficult to tell whether Amazon’s policy was motivated by the recent negative press or if the company is just trying to play catchup after a year full of announcements from other tech companies such as Netflix and Adobe offering extended paid leave benefits.

Other major tech companies including Facebook, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Pinterest, and Twitter have made announcements of generous paid leave policies, although many favor biological mothers over fathers and adoptive parents.

Practical Implementation Of Parental Leave Policies

"One hopes that [Amazon’s policies] are about boosting morale," Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, tells Fast Company. The national network of 21 state and local coalitions aims to grow the movement for family-friendly work policies.

"All these policies are great," says Bravo, especially the leave share, as it acknowledges that many partners need affordable leave but don't get it. "You have to have a clear message from the top on paper," she adds. But Bravo believes there’s something important missing from the announcement.

She says that in many workplaces that have competitive cultures like Amazon’s, managers will often tell employees what the leave policies are, then add something like, "Boy, will you be sorry if you use it." We've seen this occur, especially with new fathers who struggle with managing increased responsibility at work with the desire to spend more time with their families. Working dads don't often take time off when a child is born, even when they have paid leave, or if they do, it's only for a week or two.

Bravo cites the New York Times article as well as Julia Cheiffetz’s experience with maternity leave as proof that putting a policy in place doesn’t guarantee that staff will be encouraged to use it. She says that while Amazon reported these cases as anomalies, a better way to expose the violation is to set up an independent, third-party hotline for employees to report managers who discourage them from taking leave or other benefits.

Bravo says what Amazon should have done—and could still do—is simple. After making the announcement, managers need to be trained to encourage and implement the policies. Then, make it clear that there will be a channel for people to use to give anonymous feedback to make sure it is working.

For those managers who don’t comply, Bravo says there should be measurable consequences. She recalls how the Coast Guard gives its supervisors 360-degree evaluations that include feedback from their direct reports. Answering questions such as, "Does your manager contribute to your work-life balance?" in a negative way had repercussions. "They were demoted," Bravo observes.

Setting up an evaluation process for managers at Amazon or other organizations and asking if they are contributing to or interfering with an employee’s ability to manage work and family should be a natural extension of parental leave policies. Those who don’t will be dealt with, "in all the ways that matter: pay and promotion," she says. "Sending that message is a powerful one."

Likewise, she says, those who do complain should have their grievances investigated and resolved, and the company should publish a regular report to keep staff informed of its actions. The message a strategy like that sends, Bravo says, is, "We care about your rights and we’ll report on it."

The Need For A More Inclusive Paid Leave Policy

Transparency is a paradigm that’s not always easy to implement in a large organization, Bravo admits. Alternately she says, "We are urging companies who are trying to raise access for their employees for affordable leave to speak out for a national social insurance fund, because that’s the only way we are going to solve this problem."

The U.S. still lags behind other countries when it comes to paid parental leave. A 2014 report by the International Labour Organization revealed that among the 185 countries reviewed, only the United States and Papua New Guinea did not have public policies for paid maternity leave. The report also found that 78 of those countries also mandated paternity leave, with 70 of those providing paid leave to new fathers.

Currently in the U.S., the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers eligible workers at companies of more than 50 employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave per year, which includes taking care of a child after birth or adoption as well as for illness. To continue earning money, they are able to use any paid vacation or sick time accrued at the job and keep their health benefits. Their job is supposed to be held for their return.

This policy has been supplemented in states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Connecticut, and New Jersey, which now offer paid family and medical leave. In September, the U.S. Department of Labor launched a campaign called #LeadOnLeave to drum up more widespread support for paid parental leave. But for now, it looks like private companies, particularly in the competitive tech landscape, are a new parent's best chance to find paid time off.

Related: What Netflix's Amazing New Unlimited Parental Leave Policy Really Means