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Why Amazon is trying out a 30-hour work week – with benefits

Amazon, the online retailer, is launching a pilot program that would consist entirely of workers working for 10 hours less than full time, but with full benefits.

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Amazon.com's logo is seen at Amazon Japan's office building in Tokyo, Japan, August 8, 2016.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

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Amazon.com, the largest online retailer in the world, is trying something new.

The company is set to launch an experimental program consisting of a few teams of workers made up entirely of employees working 30 hours a week, instead of the usual 40 hours expected of a full-time employee.

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The new program is small, consisting of a few dozen people in a company that employs more than 225,000. But if it is successful, it could provide a new model for Amazon as well as other large companies seeking to become more competitive in a tightening labor market, and to especially attract more mothers.

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Amazon, of course, already has a large number of part-time workers. What makes this experiment unusual is that every level of the teams, including managers, will be part-time. The Washington Post reports that the part-time workers would only receive 75 percent of the pay a full-time worker would receive, but they would still receive full benefits.

Many companies who employ workers at reduced hours do so to avoid paying benefits that would otherwise be legally required for full-time workers. So why would Amazon provide the benefit?

"We want to create a work environment that is tailored to a reduced schedule and still fosters success and career growth," said the company in an Eventbrite.com seminar quoted by the Washington Post. "This initiative was created with Amazon's diverse workforce in mind and the realization that the traditional full-time schedule may not be a 'one size fits all' model."

Amazon hopes to tap into a more diverse workforce of qualified employees that simply do not have time for a full-time job, especially mothers.

For decades, women have tended to be primary caregivers to children at home. While the proportion of men and women spending more time at home spending time at home has begun to shift over the past few years, women with children are still underrepresented in full-time work and overrepresented as caregivers at home compared to their male counterparts. By allowing more benefit for less hours, Amazon hopes to tap into a potentially lucrative and more workforce of women.

There has also been speculation that the pilot program is also a response to increased automation in the industry, according to Fortune. A 30-hour week would more evenly distribute non-automated labor among workers, increasing efficiency. However, the current program is too small for any significant impact on the overall balance between workers and machines.

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Amazon's new program comes a year after The New York Times released a report on the company that criticized its work conditions. The report claimed that the company encouraged employees to work more than 80 hours a week and discouraged vacations. The company has been attempting to improve its image as an employer ever since.

If the program is successful, it could lead to large increase in part-time work within Amazon, and could make reduced hours popular among other companies as well.

"There has for a very long time been a stigma against working reduced hours, or part-time work," Ellen Galinsky, president and founder of the Families and Work Institute, told the Washington Post. "Even names like that, 'part-time' or 'reduced,' make it seem like a deviation from the norm, like you're doing less."

"A lot of companies have talked about wanting to lower hours but don't seem to actually go about doing it."