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Amazon is trying to make up for America's lack of paid leave. It shouldn't have to.

Senior public relations manager for Video and Studios at Amazon.com Cat Kelty and her daughter in Los Angeles.
Senior public relations manager for Video and Studios at Amazon.com Cat Kelty and her daughter in Los Angeles.
Chris Weeks/Getty Images

Amazon recently became the latest major tech company to expand its paid parental leave benefits. The new policy gives birth mothers 20 weeks of paid leave and other new parents (like fathers, LGBTQ partners who don't give birth, or adoptive parents) six weeks. The benefit applies to full-time workers, both salaried and hourly, who have worked at the company for at least a year.

The benefit also introduces the concept of "leave share": It allows Amazon employees to share their paid parental leave with a spouse whose employer doesn't have the benefit. Say a new mom is ready to come back to work after 10 weeks, but her husband wants to take a shift staying at home with their new son. If the husband's employer doesn't offer him paid paternity leave, he can take up to six weeks of unpaid time off from his job while effectively being paid by Amazon.

Amazon's policy is generous and innovative, and it recognizes how important it is for fathers, not just mothers, to take leave. But it also highlights some major structural inequalities in America, the only industrialized nation with no national paid maternity leave policy.

The 20 weeks of maternity leave Amazon offers may seem generous in the United States, but it's actually a low bar compared with what other developed nations offer — 35 weeks in Canada, 44 weeks in Germany, 70 weeks in Norway. Even Saudi Arabia offers 10 weeks of paid maternity leave.

"Compared to what the rest of the world does, we're definitely backward," said paid leave advocate Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work. "We're the outlier."

Amazon's biggest paid leave innovation is something it shouldn't have to do in the first place

Amazon's "leave share" program tries to fill in the gaps for families, but it's also a reminder of just how large those gaps can be.

Only 12 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, and that access is unequally distributed. Only 5 percent of workers in the lowest-paid 25 percent of the workforce have employer-sponsored paid leave, while 22 percent of the top 10 percent of earners do. These figures don't count policies like short-term disability or sick leave, which many new parents use to cobble together a sort of ad hoc parental leave.

Many employers don't provide unpaid leave, either. There is a federal law called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that protects your job for up to 12 weeks — unpaid — if you take time off for a new child or another serious family or medical issue. But 40 percent of American workers don't qualify for those benefits, either because they haven't been at their job long enough or because their company is too small (the FMLA regulations only apply to companies with 50 or more workers).

Even among those who do qualify for FMLA, many can't afford to spend three months without drawing a paycheck. Amazon's policy helps those people, but of course it can't do anything for the people who don't even qualify for FMLA.

Lacking paid leave puts a huge burden on new parents. It hurts women's overall ability to participate in the workforce, prevents fathers from being equal partners in child rearing, and has devastating effects on women's health and ability to parent.

A recent investigation by In These Times found that one in four working mothers goes back to work within two weeks of childbirth, usually due to financial pressures. But going back to work so soon can have nightmarish consequences for a mother's physical and mental health. Women report going back to work still bleeding from vaginal injuries or C-sections. They work 12-hour days and can't breastfeed their new baby, either because they're too stressed or because they simply don't have time. They plunge into postpartum depression, and they despair of establishing a healthy parenting routine.

Amazon is doing a good thing by trying to fill a major gap in the safety net for its workers and their families. But it shouldn't be Amazon's job to do this. And you shouldn't have to work at Amazon, or be married to someone who does, to be able to take the time you need to care for your family.

The public policy answer to this problem could look something like the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (Family Act), introduced in Congress by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). It's similar to paid leave insurance programs in states like California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, and it minimizes the burden on employers by levying a tiny payroll tax on everyone that guarantees all workers up to 12 weeks of leave at two-thirds of their normal pay. But the Family Act is going nowhere in a Republican-dominated Congress, despite the success of this kind of program at the state level and the overwhelming evidence that it didn't harm businesses or kill jobs.

Amazon shows that the paid leave problem is also cultural

However generous Amazon's new benefits are, whether employees actually use those benefits will depend a lot on the culture they work in and the social pressures they face.

"Amazon is notorious for its competitive work environment, and simply having access to leave may not be enough if workers feel they will be penalized in their careers for taking it," said Amy Traub, a senior policy analyst at Demos.

That goes for both mothers and fathers who work at the company, but fathers are already especially unlikely to take leave in general. The six weeks that Amazon gives dads is much less than the 20 weeks it gives new birth mothers, and that reflects a typical view of fathers as the "secondary parent," said Ellen Bravo of Family Values @ Work: "I remember a dad who said to me, 'We’re not a spare part. We want to spend time with our children too.'"

Research indicates that when fathers are more involved in child rearing and parenting decisions, it improves health outcomes for mothers and children, helps kids do better in school, and promotes more equitable gender norms, which in turn reduces domestic violence and helps women earn more. One way to encourage fathers to take more leave is to offer more of it across the board; when California established its paid family leave program, it more than doubled the odds that fathers would take leave. Countries like Sweden and Iceland have improved their gender-equity outcomes by offering families a chunk of time off but requiring that some of that time be taken by fathers. These kinds of policies also help counteract the potential backlash in the workforce against women who take paid leave, by shifting the default assumptions about which gender is primarily responsible for child rearing.

Policy can influence culture, but it has to be the right kind of policy, and it has to be large-scale. It's good that Amazon is leading the way on the family leave issue, Bravo said, but it's no substitute for a universal social insurance plan like the Family Act.

Still, it's clear that Silicon Valley is starting to wake up to the fact that paid parental leave isn't just good for new parents — it's also good for business. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki argued in an op-ed that paid maternity leave has been good for Google's bottom line. The rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50 percent after the company increased paid maternity leave to 18 weeks from 12, she said.

But Wojcicki also argued that paid leave is too important to be treated like a privilege offered by a generous employer. "Support for motherhood shouldn’t be a matter of luck; it should be a matter of course," she wrote.