OPINION By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune.
On the heels of some spectacularly bad publicity about its workplace culture, Amazon has rolled out a new family leave policy that allows for 20 weeks of paid leave, plus the option to "leave share" with your partner, even if he or she doesn't work for Amazon.
Full-time hourly and salaried employees, Amazon fulfillment center and customer-service employees are all eligible.
The company, possibly reeling from articles in Gawker and the New York Times depicting a ruthless work culture, declined my request for an interview but agreed to email me a copy of the policy, which I have to say, sounds pretty great.
"Birth mothers can now take up to 4 weeks of paid pre-partum medical leave followed by 10 weeks of paid maternity leave," the policy states. "Birth mothers and all other new parents who have been at Amazon for a year or more can also take a new 6-week paid parental leave. ... All together, these policies provide birth mothers who have been at Amazon more than one year with up to 20 weeks of leave."
Here's where it gets really interesting.
"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 percent 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."
(The partner would, ostensibly, be using time made possible by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which ensures that employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave after the birth or adoption of a child.)
Amazon offers the following example: "Julia is an associate at an Amazon Fulfillment Center and recently had a baby. She's taken 10 weeks of paid maternity leave and would like to come back to work.
"Ideally, she'd like her husband to take some time off at this point, which would make her return to work easier. However, her husband's employer provides only unpaid paternity leave, and it's going to be financially difficult for him to take time off.
That's where the Leave Share Program can help. Julia can share all or a portion of her paid parental leave with her husband, and he can stay home and help with their new baby.
"While this example describes a birth mother at Amazon sharing her leave benefits with her husband, 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."
I checked in with Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, an organization that pushes for family-friendly workplace policies, to get her thoughts on leave share.
"It's a great idea, and it's great they're applying it to hourly as well as salaried employees," Bravo said. "The thing I wish I'd see is a line stating, 'If you have any resistance from your manager when you ask for this time or when you make this time available to your partner, call this 800 number immediately, and an impartial third party will intervene as rapidly as possible."
Too often, Bravo said, company executives explain away their lousy treatment of employees by saying they had no idea it was happening.
"The lesson Amazon needs to learn from their own bad publicity is the importance of a safe channel for reporting problems and the need to implement that safe channel," Bravo said. "So that people will understand not only what the policy is on paper, but what recourse they have if their manager gets in the way of that policy."
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, you may recall, caught heat recently for her habit of taking two-week maternity leaves, in part because it could send the message that she expects her employees to do the same, despite Yahoo's relatively generous family leave policy.
"That's another example of what you don't say sending a message as much as what you do say," Bravo told me. "What we needed to hear from Marissa Mayer was, 'Please be assured that you are not only permitted, but encouraged, to take the full time allotted. We know that you, too, are important to the company, but we have designed the work in a way that you are each special, but not indispensable, and we can and will cover your work when you are out.'"
All companies, Amazon included, would do well to heed Bravo's advice.
"It's incredibly important for top managers to recognize that their staff needs assurance, the stated assurance of the leave policy," she said, "but also the knowledge of channels to remedy it if their manager sends a different message than what the policy allows."