Amazon takes parental leave so seriously, even spouses get paid time off

A worker pulls a fork lift at the Amazon Fulfillment Center on August 1, 2017 in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
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When it comes to paid time off for new parents, the U.S. comes in last place among the 41 countries that comprise the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED). The government does not mandate any paid leave for parents, and as of March 2016, only 13 percent of all private industry workers had access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the race for top talent, several U.S. tech companies have led the way on this issue, boosting their parental leave policies in recent years. Twitter, for instance, offers 20 weeks of paid leave to all new parents, and Facebook provides four months to full-time employees.

More than most, Amazon has been on the cutting edge. The retail behemoth not only offers a generous paid parental leave policy for both moms and dads, it also helps parents ramp back up after being out and even pays for its employees' spouses who do not work at the company to take time off.

The company's latest parental leave policies were launched in 2015 after employees said the previous policy wasn't working for them.

"It wasn't comprehensive enough, didn't give new parents enough time with their children and often the transition back to work was difficult," says Steve Winter, Amazon's director of global programs and services, who led the redesign. "So HR looked into ways to improve it. We wanted to build an egalitarian program that would work for all of our employees."

Two years ago, Amazon began offering birth mothers up to 14 weeks of paid maternity leave, plus an additional six weeks to those who've been with the company for a year. Altogether, that's a total of 20 weeks, or about five months, of fully paid leave that moms can potentially take.

"The first few weeks are critical," says Liz Swanby, an operations manager at Amazon who welcomed her son almost three years ago. She points to small moments like a child's first bath.

"You don't get that time back," she tells CNBC Make It.

Liz Swanby (on left) with her wife Andrea Swanby and their two children.

It was important to Amazon to extend the benefits to all employees. Now dads, adoptive parents and non-birth mothers who've been with the company for a year get six weeks of fully paid parental leave.

Employees can also choose to take their parental leave in one continuous six-week period or split into two periods within 12 months of birth or adoption.

Additionally, through its Adoption Assistance benefit, eligible U.S. employees can be reimbursed for qualified adoption expenses, such as adoption fees, attorney fees, court costs and travel costs, up to $5,000 for a single child adoption or up to $10,000 combined maximum for a sibling adoption.

One of the most unique aspects of Amazon's parental leave policy is its Leave Share program, which allows employees to share their parental leave with a partner who doesn't work at Amazon and whose employer does not provide paid parental leave.

For example, Jason, an Amazon employee, is entitled to six weeks of paternal leave. His wife Emily doesn't work at Amazon and her employer does not provide paid leave. Jason can give three of his six weeks to his wife and keep the other three weeks for himself.

During his three weeks of leave, Jason is paid his full salary, and Amazon also pays Emily her husband's base salary for three weeks so that she, too, can take time off.

"Leave Share came out of employee focus groups, where we received feedback about the struggle that comes with a partner who doesn't get paid leave," Winter tells CNBC Make It. "It was actually [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos who really embraced this concern and challenged us to think big about how to create an experience for employees that could completely change not just their experience with a newborn, but their partners as well."

The second initiative that makes the company's policy stand out is its Ramp Back program, which allows new parents to ease back to work with an eight-week flexible schedule and reduced work hours.

For example, after a new parent returns to Amazon from her parental leave, she can choose between a variety of schedules for eight weeks. She can return to work for eight weeks at 50 percent capacity, eight weeks at 75 percent or four weeks at 50 percent followed by four weeks at 75 percent.

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From 2015 to 2017, the company looked at extensive data and feedback from employees, and the results were telling: Amazon employees who had used the new benefits said they provided both financial and emotional relief and allowed them to come back to work better prepared to take on their day-to-day tasks.

Since launch, more than 11,000 U.S. employees have taken parental leave at Amazon, which covers everyone from warehouse workers to senior corporate executives. In the U.S. alone, that's over 200,000 employees.

Nearly three-quarters of employees who have used the paid leave benefit are hourly employees, and more than 60 percent of employees who have used parental leave are fathers.

Amazon's policy is an anomaly among U.S. companies as a whole. In fact, although most Americans support paid family and medical leave and believe that employers should cover the costs, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, few employers offer this benefit.

While most employers do offer unpaid parental leave — thanks in part to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which guarantees eligible workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year — the cost of not earning income for an extended period can hit families hard.

Swanby and her wife, Andrea, say that Amazon's parental leave policy was vital after the birth of their son Max, who was born with a form of dwarfism and is considered special needs.

"We had so many health-care situations and hospital trips for our son," says Andrea, who is a stay-at-home mother. "It was a really difficult time."

However, they were able to maximize the leave policy, with Swanby taking off six weeks.

Andrea explains that it cannot just be one parent solely responsible for all the "chaos" that comes with having a new child. "Companies should be more sensitive to that, especially to more atypical situations like ours," she says.

Swanby adds that parental leave is not just beneficial for parents but also for companies. Since she was able to "ease back into work" for the first few weeks, she didn't come back feeling overwhelmed and was able to focus on her job knowing that things were running smoothly at home.

Paid time off for new parents "is a win-win for employees and employers," she says.

"When things are going well at home, I do better at work. The two co-exist."

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