How the Women of Amazon Fought for—and Won—a Revolutionary Family Leave Policy

How the Women of Amazon Fought for—and Won—a Revolutionary Family Leave Policy

How the Women of Amazon Fought for—and Won—a Revolutionary Family Leave Policy

Better Life Lab
The Future of Work, Gender, and Social Policy
Oct. 10 2017 10:00 AM

How the Women of Amazon Fought for—and Won—a Revolutionary Family Leave Policy

171002_BLL_Amazon-Maternity-Leave-Organization

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images, Thinkstock.

At Amazon, Lindsey Fowler was lucky to have a job she liked, as a senior manager of software development, and one with a paid leave policy in place when she had her first child in December of 2011. She took 10 weeks off, 8 of which were paid, before returning to work. “I would have liked to stay out longer, but we couldn’t afford for me to stay out,” she said.

But when she started thinking about having a second child, she spoke with her co-workers, who agreed that the paid leave Amazon offered was decent but could be better. So Fowler, a member of the Amazon Women in Engineering, or AWE, leadership team, convened a meeting with a half-dozen other women. One night in December 2014, in Fowler’s basement, over glasses of wine and chocolate caramels, they hammered out a vision of what the company’s improved parental leave plan could look like: more paid time off, easier transitions back to work, and leave options for moms and dads, birth parents and adoptive.

Advertisement

“We created a press release,” said Fowler. At Amazon, when an employee concocts an idea for a new product, she presents the concept to management and her colleagues in a press release. Fowler and her colleagues decided to present an idea for better employee benefits in the same way.

In January 2015, the AWE leadership team presented their press release to Steve Winter, director of Amazon’s human resources and benefits, who was receptive to the suggestions and began the formal process of examining how well the current parental leave policy at Amazon was meeting employee needs.

According to Winter, they heard from employees through focus groups that the previous policy wasn’t working for them. Too many parents felt, like Fowler, that they had to return before they were ready to. Those that did come back to work felt overwhelmed by the transition of going from full-time caregiver to full-time Amazonian.

In October, Winter presented the new plan to CEO Jeff Bezos, complete with cost analysis and a communications rollout. Bezos signed off and the plan was implemented worldwide that November. Less than a year after Fowler and her co-workers met in her basement, a new leave plan, and one of the most forward-thinking in the country, became reality.

Advertisement

Winter explained that Amazon wanted to reshape the employee experience, including for those who are not parents. “We want to attract great talent and we want to be relevant to the market so we don’t lose talent. This was something we wanted to do for employees, but [improved family leave] pays off in many ways, retention being a key one.” There’s extensive research to support Amazon’s thinking. Studies have shown that better family leave polices actually save money in the long term by lowering health care costs, cutting down on absenteeism and improving employee retention, particularly among women.

Amazon now offers 20 weeks of parental leave for birth mothers (which includes up to four weeks pre-partum and 16 weeks after the baby is born), and six weeks for all other new parents. Only a few tech companies offer more, says Romy Newman, president and co-founder of Fairygodboss, a website that offers job reviews and benefit information. Amazon’s benefits apply to all full-time hourly and salaried employees, including more than 100,000 employees who work in customer service and at fulfillment centers. (Amazon defines full time as 30 or more hours a week.) Companies like Starbucks have taken heat for offering one set of paid leave benefits for corporate employees and another set for hourly employees. A spokesperson for Amazon reports that nearly three-quarters of employees who have taken advantage of the paid leave benefits are hourly, and 60 percent of them are men.

In addition to longer paid leave for mothers and fathers, Amazon also offers a “ramp-back” program, which provides eight weeks of flexible work arrangements that include part-time schedules as a parent transitions back their family leave.

But the most revolutionary aspect of the plan is Amazon’s leave share program. Leave Share is more commonly seen in unionized workplaces, where employees can share their sick leave with one another, giving those who need it more time but ensuring work continues smoothly while they’re out. At Amazon, which isn’t unionized, instead of sharing paid leave with a co-worker, you can share it with your spouse, even if they don’t work at Amazon. Yes, really. If an Amazon employee is ready to return to work but has a spouse who hasn’t been able to take a full, paid parental leave, Amazon will allow the Amazon employee to share up to six weeks of their paid leave at the employee’s salary. That way, the spouse can take unpaid leave from their own jobs without creating extreme financial stress the Amazon employee would end up feeling too.

Advertisement

The reasoning behind Amazon’s leave share is sound: Parents succeed in the workplace when they have a supportive partner at home. When both parents spend time as the primary caregivers for an infant, studies show, they’ll continue to share caregiving responsibilities as the child ages. Since most workplaces today offer only maternity leave if they offer paid leave at all, it is difficult for fathers to take time away to take part in caregiving. In essence, Amazon is pioneering a new way to help its female employees by financially encouraging their partners to be more involved at home.

Studies show that women take on a majority of child care and household responsibilities, even when both parents work, which leads women to drop out of the workforce at a higher rate after having children. By promoting a shared environment at home, Amazon is likely to have higher long-term retention rates for women at the company.

Winter described the leave share program as a “game changer.” “Amazon has employees everywhere,” he said. “Not everyone has a spouse who has a luxury of taking paid leave. We decided it’s not just our employee that needs this, it’s choice and flexibility for our families.”

Aaron Toso hadn’t taken a paid paternity leave with either of his first two children, but he and his wife were expecting a baby daughter shortly after the new policy was announced. Toso, who works in Amazon Corporate Communications, took two paid weeks of leave and leave-shared the other four with his wife, who runs her own business as an insurance broker.

Advertisement

“With our second child was born [in 2011], my wife was closing deals from the hospital room,” he said. “We knew this was going to be our last kid. I wanted us to have more time at home.”

To sign up for leave share, all Toso had to do was check a box on a form provided by Amazon, no additional verification needed, and he was given a check for four weeks of his salary.

“What surprised me the most was how easy it was. Right when you have a new baby, there are always so many other things to worry about,” he said. “This wasn’t one of them.”

For more companies to make changes like Amazon did, it requires more women like Lindsey Fowler speaking up.

“In almost every industry, women, and sometimes men, see the [current leave] as a problem and decide they want to change it,” said Brianna Cayo Cotter of PL+US, an organization that advocates for increasing paid leave policies across the United States. Just like at Amazon, Cotter says these changes are being led by women who were willing to take the fight to their HR department and demand change. Like Amazon, similar movements came from the New York Times, Starbucks, Walmart, and the city of Austin, Texas. Employee affinity groups, like AWE, are often the drivers, as they can bring people together from all parts of the company who wouldn’t normally cross paths. In the case of Starbucks’ paid leave policy, women in the corporate office were making the case internally, while baristas had been organizing with their peers through Facebook groups and through public campaigns to get their concerns addressed by the company.

“You need a forward-thinking CEO and a supportive HR department to make this happen quickly, but we're also seeing the changes being driven by women at all levels who want to get things done," said Cayo Cotter.

In the year after the new policy was implemented, Fowler became pregnant with her second child. She ended up taking 10 weeks of paid leave, and then her husband stayed home for six more weeks, receiving Fowler’s salary while doing so. “This time it felt like a choice,” she said. “We ended up deciding that I should go back to work and [my husband] would take a little more time with [the kids],” she said. “And it really felt like a choice. It made me really want to come back to work more.”

Rebecca Gale is an award-winning journalist covering the nexus of politics and people in Washington. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Roll Call, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, and Health Affairs, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter.