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Amazon Vastly Improves Parental Leave Benefits: Genuine Progress, or Just a PR Stunt?

working-motherRemember the devastating New York Times article back in September that exposed Amazon’s brutal work culture and insensitive treatment of working parents? Well, following all the bad press it’s received in the aftermath, Amazon has taken major steps to improve parental leave benefits, according to a company memo released earlier this week.

Starting in the coming weeks, male employees will be eligible for paid paternity leave. In addition, Amazon has devised an innovative new policy that gives money to employees so their spouse or partners can stay home with the new baby.

Mothers can now receive a total of 20 weeks leave, more than doubling the meager eight weeks allowed in the past. This also fits in with larger trends in the tech world, where everyone is racing to offer premium-level benefits and out-compete other tech companies vying to hire talent. Google, Netflix, IBM, Microsoft, Accenture and Adobe also offer 20 weeks of paid maternity leave to mothers.

Of course, Amazon’s new policies are all the more notable in light of that scathing New York Times report, which exposed how motherhood can be a serious professional risk for some workers owing to expectations to commit long, grueling hours.

Within that report a human resources executive admitted that a woman who’d just delivered a stillborn baby was placed on Amazon’s “performance improvement” program right after she returned to the office. Many other accounts of Amazon’s harsh treatment toward mothers surfaced in the aftermath of the Times article.

The new policy will be offered on January 1, but will apply to all babies born after Oct. 1, 2015. All full-time workers are covered by the new policy, including employees in the company’s warehouses, according to Amazon’s company. That detail distinguishes Amazon from its tech rival Netflix, whose recently-expanded maternity leave didn’t cover workers in its fulfillment centers.

Amazon’s new Leave Share Program is quite novel: it permits full-time workers to split their six-week paid leave with their spouse, provided their partner doesn’t get any paid time off through their job. According to the memo, this is how it works: You return early from your six-week leave and the company pays you for the remaining time. You use that money so your partner can take time off with the baby.

“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,” the memo explains. “That can be difficult because more than 80% of American companies don’t provide any paid parental leave.”

The company has also devised a “flex program” that permits new parents to incrementally return to full-time hours.

The jury is still out on how the new policies will impact Amazon’s highly competitive work culture. Other companies that currently offer paternity leave have discovered that it’s difficult to persuade men to actually use it. And female employees could still wind up “mommy-tracked” by managers unaccustomed to workers taking such long leaves.

Still, the policy could benefit Amazon by encouraging workers to stick with the company; this is especially important since, at the Times highlighted, high attrition rates are another significant company issue. Expanded maternity leave has helped other tech companies like Google and Adobe retain female employees.

Amazon notes in the employee memo that the company started looking into changing its maternity leave policy back in “early 2015.” It run a number of internal focus groups and researched the policies of other companies, the memo says. It also stressed that the improvements weren’t just for well-paid Amazonians in Seattle’s South Lake Union office. “We also wanted to ensure that all our full‐time employees, including our Fulfillment Center and Customer Service Associates, enjoy the same benefits,” the memo says.

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Emery Reddy