When Elvira Lopez’s son Javier was born in March 2016, the Amazon.com warehouse employee took advantage of a perk that few U.S. hourly workers enjoy: She took 20 weeks of paid maternity leave, and after that, a six-week gradual ramp-up back to work.
“I was able to go to appointments. You know how hard that can be,” said the 28-year old Lopez, who lives in Phoenix. The time off also gave her the opportunity to spend time with her older daughter, 11, during the summer and to visit California, where she’s from. “We went to Disneyland. Twice.”
Lopez is one of 11,000 U.S. employees to have enjoyed Amazon’s overhaul of parental-leave benefits in November 2015. About 72 percent of them are, like Lopez, operations and logistics workers paid by the hour and on the lower end of the salary scale, according to data released for the first time by the company.
Amazon’s move to revamp its parental-leave benefits coincided with a wider wave of perk enhancements among booming U.S. technology companies concerned about retaining talented employees, especially women, who are underrepresented in tech. Microsoft and Netflix had announced major improvements to their parental-leave policies earlier that year.
It also came at a time when the fast-growing company started making its way to the top of the list of major employers among the Fortune 500, mostly due to furious hiring at its warehouses.
Amazon currently employs 382,400 around the world, and if the company completes its takeover of Whole Foods, it could become the second-biggest employer on the list after Wal-Mart.
What’s interesting about Amazon’s policy, though, is that the Seattle e-commerce giant extended to its burgeoning army of relatively low-paid warehouse workers the same enhanced benefits that its highly paid software developers and executives get.
That gives the majority of Amazon’s U.S. workforce access to generous leave policies that are rare beyond the upper echelons of American workers or among those living in the few states with paid leave laws. (Washington state’s paid family-leave law takes effect in 2020).
According to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last November, close to a quarter of private-industry workers in management and professional occupations had access to paid family leave. In contrast, only 7 percent of people in service occupations, and 6 percent of workers in transportation and production activities had the same benefit.
“Privately offered paid leave has grown most in sectors that recruit from a small group of highly skilled workers,” wrote the authors of a Brookings Institution paper published in May.
That inequality can be seen even within large companies that employ people at both ends of the skill spectrum.
When Starbucks earlier this year said it would expand its parental benefits starting in October, it gave nonstore employees a much better deal than it did baristas. Wal-Mart, Amazon’s archrival and America’s largest private employer, also has a two-tier system.
Benefits for moms and dads
Parental benefits are available to Amazon employees who work more than 26 hours per week. To moms who give birth, Amazon offers 20 weeks of paid leave. Four of those weeks can be taken before the baby comes.
That part of the policy was designed with warehouse employees in mind, said Steve Winter, an Amazon human-resources director.
Winter said that his group heard from employees and managers at fulfillment centers that it was difficult for expecting mothers in the later stages of pregnancy to stand for hours at a time and move around the floor. “We wanted to make sure we gave moms the opportunity to be able to rest,” he said.
After the baby is born, new moms can take up to 16 weeks off at full base pay.
Six of those weeks can be shared with their partner — meaning that if the employee returns to work, the other parent gets paid the equivalent of the Amazonemployee’s salary to stay at home with the baby.
That allows partners of Amazon employees who work at companies who don’t offer paid parental leave to take time off.
New dads, or employees who have adopted a child, are eligible for six weeks paid leave. That leave can also be shared with a significant other.
In addition to parental leave, Amazon allows new parents of either gender up to eight weeks of a flexible work schedule. The program is called “Ramp Back,” and was also the result of employee feedback obtained through focus groups, Winter said.
“New moms expressed ‘it could be nice if I could transition back to work so I could manage the day-care situation, pickups, drop off,’ ” Winter said.
Lopez, the Phoenix warehouse employee, took six of the eight weeks of flexible scheduling available to her, working three eight-hour days a week instead of her usual four 10-hour days.
New HR role
To handle leave requests from employees, Amazon created a new role: “parent ambassadors,” a group of some 40 human-resource staffers who act as concierges for the new parents and stay in touch through the leave.
“The ambassador stays with them until they come back to work,” Winter said.
About 60 percent of Amazon employees who have taken paid parental leave are men, like Aaron Toso, a Seattle-based public-relations specialist whose third child, a daughter, was born last September.
He took two weeks off and shared the last four weeks with his wife, Megan, who runs her own insurance brokerage and doesn’t have access to paid leave. That means that the company paid Megan the equivalent of Toso’s base salary for that time.
“When my second child was born, she was closing a deal from the hospital,” Toso said in an interview. But now, because of Amazon’s leave policy, “my wife didn’t have to rush back to her business,” he said.
“We really just wanted to enjoy spending time with her, spend time together as a family.”