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You shouldn’t have to ask your boss for an abortion

Corporate America is an imperfect ally on abortion rights.

Protesters wearing green hold a large banner reading “We won’t go back.”
Activists with Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights protest outside of the US Supreme Court on June 21.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Companies stepping up to say that they will support their workers in accessing abortions after the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade raises questions both logistical and existential. For example, do you really want to ask your boss at Dick’s Sporting Goods for $4,000 and a couple of days off to terminate a pregnancy? If you start to think about the situation beyond the press release, it can get pretty disturbing pretty quickly. It reinforces how supremely screwed up the entire post-Roe situation is, as well as the setup of the United States health care system.

“It’s better than nothing, I’m not going to say it’s bad,” said Kate Bahn, director of labor market policy and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “It’s a Band-Aid on a stab wound.”

It’s a Band-Aid millions of people across the country, now stripped of their rights, would rather not need.

How and whether all of this will work remains an open question; logistically, how companies will handle this could be complicated. It’s not yet clear how aggressive a post-Roe enforcement regime might be, or what lengths anti-abortion lawmakers will go to in targeting entities, including businesses, that support abortion care.

Some experts warn that Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attack on Disney over the company’s tepid opposition to the state’s “don’t say gay” bill is a disturbing precedent. If abortion is criminalized in a state, courts might issue subpoenas trying to compel companies and health benefits programs to hand over information. Companies could also potentially be accused of aiding and abetting a crime and issued subpoenas in those cases. There are plenty of legal fights ahead and many unanswered questions.

On an individual level, companies getting involved in abortion care puts an awkward onus on workers to go through their employers regarding a personal, private matter. It also underlines an often overlooked issue: the way health care in the US is so intertwined with and controlled by one’s employer.

Whether or not a worker can get abortion support through their employer in a state where the procedure is outlawed now becomes a matter of luck, where they work, and in many cases, whether they’re covered by their employer’s health benefits plans or not. Some companies making announcements aren’t actually going to provide assistance to all of their employees. “We could probably guess that these types of benefits would be more available to high-income workers who would be better able to afford access to abortion services anyway,” Bahn said.

At a broader scale, this is part of a troubling trend in the United States where the public increasingly leans on corporations to solve problems because the government will not. Companies — many of which have donated millions of dollars to anti-abortion politicians — aren’t going to save the people who have just lost what many believe is a fundamental constitutional and human right.

“It seems abnormal to you that the state would take away fundamental human rights and you would have to count on capitalism to provide them,” said Linda Hirshman, a lawyer and author of multiple books about activism and social change. “You haven’t lived in a world where the democratically elected government was the adversary and the market economy was the ally.”

An insufficient solution to an enormous problem

After a draft of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was leaked by Politico in May, some companies began to announce their intentions to provide support to their employees where abortion access is restricted. Since the decision came down, major companies have reiterated and announced their positions.

Disney, for example, has said it will extend its “family planning” benefit to workers who can’t get reproductive care where they live. The CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods said on LinkedIn that the company would provide up to $4,000 in abortion travel expense reimbursement to workers enrolled in its medical plan and their family members. Amazon has told staff it will also pay up to $4,000 in assistance. A litany of major names, including JPMorgan, Bank of America, Meta, Warner Brothers, Reddit, and a multitude of others, say they will reimburse employees for reproductive care-related travel and otherwise support workers in need of such care.

Vox Media, which owns Vox.com, has also made such a pledge. On Friday, CEO Jim Bankoff pledged to “support employees seeking access to critical health care, including abortion.” The company has put in place a $1,500 reimbursement of travel-related expenses for employees who have to travel more than 100 miles for “critical health care” needs. The benefit is also about to be enshrined in Vox Media’s new union contract.

For many employees, it is reassuring to know that they have their employers’ support, and these measures will surely help many people. At the same time, this is a woefully insufficient solution, and it’s really unclear how any of this will work.

“I don’t know what the individual processes will be like, but if someone is seeking reimbursement for travel, you know, do they have to go to HR? Or is it done through the insurance companies?” said Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic who has analogous experience with gender-affirming care. “What are the processes that they have to protect confidentiality, because that is particularly a huge concern, especially if you have a manager that is opposed to abortion.”

I love my boss and really trust her. I also would not want to have to ask her — or anyone in Vox’s HR department — for a couple thousand dollars and two days off because of an unwanted pregnancy.

It’s worth scrutinizing which workers will be covered by these policies companies are offering up and which ones will be excluded. If, say, a travel reimbursement is covered through the employer’s health plan, workers who aren’t on the health plan — like part-time employees or contractors — wouldn’t be covered. The company would have to deal with that separately, which some firms, such as Levi Strauss, have said they would. Amazon and Disney, which employ hundreds of thousands of people, did not respond to requests for more information about which workers would and wouldn’t be covered by their assistance programs. Dick’s pointed to its original statement and declined to comment further, as did Starbucks.

“It’s not a real, just policy if it just covers your corporate headquarters employees,” said Sonja Spoo, director of reproductive rights campaigns at UltraViolet, a women’s advocacy group.

While many big-name companies have said they’ll help workers with abortion assistance, others have not. Walmart and McDonald’s did not respond to inquiries about whether they have any plans to support workers in need of abortion care. It’s a controversial issue, and a lot of companies do not want to get in the middle of it.

This conversation also discounts the millions of people who work for small businesses, where what — if anything — they’ll do in the face of Roe’s repeal is a completely open question.

Republicans aren’t just going to let this go

Businesses saying they’ll cover travel expenses for abortions and providing other assistance are likely to quickly find themselves at odds with anti-abortion lawmakers and leaders. This could have consequences for the businesses in question and their employees.

Some Republicans have made no secret of their desire to go after corporations they view as having progressive values. In May, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio introduced a bill that would remove tax breaks for “woke” corporations. It would bar employers from deducting expenses related to abortion travel costs or gender-affirming care. In Texas, a group of Republican legislators have said they’ll introduce bills banning companies that pay for abortions in states where it’s legal from doing business in the state.

Gov. DeSantis in Florida has provided a blueprint, after attacking Disney in the wake of its objection to the state’s “don’t say gay” bill and axing some of the benefits and breaks the company was receiving.

“If you saw what happened with Disney, where DeSantis made a very public example of retaliating against Disney, there has been a culture of silence that has fallen. It’s very clear the playbook now is to attack corporations that do anything that goes against social conservatism in a very public way and get them to stop doing stuff like that,” Caraballo said. A state getting a major company to back down could have a chilling effect on everyone else. “All of the smaller companies will fall like dominoes.”

Workers will have to depend on their employers to be brave, but this is a situation where state governments may have the upper hand.

“At the end of the day, the state, which has a monopoly of force — that’s by definition — is more powerful than the market economy,” Hirshman said.

Criminalization is also a major concern. If law enforcement believes a person had an illegal abortion, they may begin to issue subpoenas and warrants as part of their investigations, including from employers and their health benefits programs.

“That’s going to be a really interesting problem,” said Lucia Savage, chief privacy and regulatory officer at Omada Health. “Right now, if a law enforcement agency wants to look at a medical record, they can do so with a court order. So changes in reproductive health law that make things illegal creates new criminal bases for that court order to be issued.”

There are all sorts of areas where the issue could get thorny; for example, with remote work. Say Texas tries to get a court order or issue a subpoena to investigate an employee who works from home in that state, but for a firm based in California. Would that subpoena be issued rightfully? And then there’s the company’s reaction, too. “Different employers are going to have different appetites for fighting that subpoena,” she said.

In the mid-2010s, Apple fought hard to keep from unlocking iPhones, including that of a mass shooter in San Bernardino, California, despite multiple orders from law enforcement. In the abortion context, it’s not clear how many companies will be Apple. That was also a key function for customers, not a benefit to employees.

The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe will change work for women and people who can get pregnant, whether their employers offer reproductive support or not.

Sometimes, separate workforce policies for women can work against them, meaning there could be unintended knock-on effects for these corporate policies. “If there’s a costly benefit that’s only available to women workers, is there a risk that could ultimately lead to a stigma or bias or discrimination?” Bahn said.

She also pointed to evidence that reduced access to birth control and restrictions on abortion services can stifle women at work, making them less likely to move between jobs and into higher-paying jobs. “It changes how you think about your life if you live in a place where you don’t have control over family planning,” she said.

Companies just aren’t going to save us here

One complicated aspect of companies now saying they’ll help support workers needing reproductive care is that some of those same companies also played a role in how we got here in the first place. Namely, if you look at their donations, you’ll see plenty have given money to anti-abortion politicians who helped craft the laws they are now fighting against. Measures being taken now are less valuable than if companies had mobilized to really fight the political battle before.

UltraViolet has launched a website that tracks corporate giving to anti-abortion candidates or their associated political action committees, and identified hundreds of thousands of dollars from firms such as Nike, Uber, Disney, and AT&T. All now say they’re going to reimburse abortion travel expenses.

“They need to stop giving to anti-abortion politicians,” Spoo said. “Their rationale for giving might not be ideological, but their impact is.” She believes companies have a responsibility to help fund the way back to abortion rights, through lobbying and supporting local abortion assistance groups.

Bahn echoed the sentiment. “If companies really cared, I think that they should put their support behind wide-scale policy changes. Some of it could be lobbying on Capitol Hill,” she said.

How long companies stick to their guns here is also worth keeping an eye on. At the outset of the pandemic, corporations were very eager to tell us how they were supporting their customers and workers. A few months in, after everybody stopped looking, that support often petered out.

Employers supporting workers in need of reproductive care is, generally, a good thing. But for so many people shocked, confused, and devastated by the Supreme Court’s decision, it really seems like we just should not be here in the first place. And, again, it’s worth questioning why health care is at all tied to work.

The slogan goes, “My body, my choice,” not “My body, and after consulting with the HR department, my choice.”