The workplace is ground zero in US abortion fight

Oct 11, 2022

5 mins

The workplace is ground zero in US abortion fight
Judith Crosbie

US-based freelance journalist.

The US Supreme Court decision in June to take away the right to abortion under the constitution didn’t just send shockwaves through the political institutions of the land, boardrooms, and workplaces also went into a tailspin as everyone grappled with how the decision could affect them. Since the ruling, about half of the 50 US states have brought in restrictions on abortion or said that they intend to do so, including more than 10 states where the procedure is banned outright with no exceptions even for pregnancies resulting from rape. The move has put US workplaces sharply in the spotlight for a variety of reasons.

When healthcare is linked to work

The US is unusual in that healthcare is often linked to workers’ jobs, with employment-based health insurance covering almost 55% of the total population. Not all health insurance covers abortion, prompting some employers to declare they would extend healthcare benefits to include abortion and travel expenses if staff are based in states where abortion is restricted. This includes the major banks JP Morgan, Citigroup, and Bank of America and the retailers Amazon, Apple, and Nike, among others. But there are questions about the extent to which low-paid workers, people of color, and the many Americans employed by smaller businesses will receive extra help in accessing abortion. Just 5% of human resource professionals told a survey their organization provided travel expenses for employees in restrictive states to access abortion and 6% said they were considering providing it.

There is also the issue of confidentiality: how many people will feel comfortable approaching their boss to ask for travel expenses for an abortion? As Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi put it: “So that’s where we are in the richest country on Earth: human rights being doled out by HR departments. Civil rights downgraded to corporate perks.”

Silence is not an option

Americans have come to expect employers to weigh in on the big issues of the day and abortion is about as big as it gets. The issue presents companies with particular difficulties, says Professor Tom CW Lin, author of The Capitalist and the Activist: Corporate Social Activism and the New Business of Change. “What I think makes abortion particularly challenging for the business community is that it’s an issue for the decades and society thought it was settled. In another respect, I think what’s made it challenging is [that] it touches on something deeply private, deeply personal and so there is a sensitivity for businesses to delve into such a personal matter,” he says.

Not taking a stance equally can present difficulties, especially considering that people feel so passionately about abortion.“The days where there were clear lines on what you can and cannot talk about at the workplace in terms of social policy are gone, those lines have been blurred,” says Lin. “Business enterprises are ultimately human enterprises. When people go to work they don’t leave behind the concerns that they have outside the workplace whether they are an employee on the assembly line, someone in middle management, or someone in the C-suite. Their businesses don’t exist in a vacuum outside of society, they’re part and parcel of society, and so it is really hard for them to stay silent when their employees are bringing those concerns into the office,” he says.

What is being done?

Some companies went further than just tweaking their healthcare policies for employees. When Indiana introduced legislation in August banning abortion in almost all cases, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and engineering firm Cummins, two of Indiana’s biggest employers, threatened future investment in the state. Both companies expressed concerns about being able to attract workers to the state in the future, with Cummins adding: “As we continue to grow our footprint with a focus on selecting communities that align with our values and business goals, this law will be considered in our decision-making process.”

But while corporate America wanted to be seen to be taking a strident stance, at times this rang hollow. In 2020, Eli Lilly donated $10,000 to the Indiana state Republican Party, which proposed the abortion ban and nothing to the state Democratic Party, whose members unanimously voted against it. Several other outspoken employers on abortion rights such as JP Morgan and Citigroup are major backers of the Republican Party.

Google’s supposedly progressive stance was also attacked. The Alphabet Workers’ Union, a group representing more than 1,000 Google workers, took the company to task stating that its public pronouncements on abortion didn’t go far enough. The group sent the company a petition signed by hundreds of employees calling for cover for travel expenses to include not just full-time employees, but also contract and part-time workers. The petition also calls on Google to stop lobbying politicians and to ensure that data showing people searching for abortion services will not get handed over to the police investigating abortions. “Workers across Google and Alphabet have been organizing for years to improve working conditions, strengthen protections for users, and demand greater transparency regarding the relationship between the company and various elected officials,” said Jenny Rosewood, an information architect at Google and member of the Alphabet Workers Union-CWA. “The recent overturning of Roe v Wade by the US Supreme Court brought together several issues and their intersections across the company.” Rosewood says Google has yet to respond to the petition but adds: “We will continue to organize both publicly and privately to make clear to Google that the concerns raised in our petition are necessary and must be immediately addressed.”

Meanwhile, Starbucks was also criticized when it used its position on extending abortion coverage for employees to further its opposition to a unionizing drive in the company. Starbucks stated that its extended coverage may not cover unionized workers, since the benefit could end up being bargained away during contract negotiations, a move one veteran labor reporter called “union busting” on Twitter.

Handling the backlash

While some companies experienced a backlash for not going far enough there is trepidation about being too vocal about abortion too, says Lin. “CEOs and boards of directors are sensitive and attentive to potential political repudiations and backlash to their decisions on this and many other issues,” he says. After Citigroup published its extended benefits to assist employees seeking abortions, 45 Republican members of Congress demanded that the bank be dropped as the credit card supplier for Congress members. Employers are also fearful of legal action being taken if they assist workers traveling out of state for abortions, particularly in Texas where the law bans “aiding and abetting” terminations.

The economic repercussions

Perhaps the biggest repercussion on the horizon for the world of work is the long-term economic effects of abortion bans. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned about the consequences at a Senate hearing. “I believe that eliminating the right of women to make decisions about when and whether to have children would have very damaging effects on the economy,” she said. These concerns are backed up by data. A 10-year study by researchers at the University of California in 2018 showed that people who are denied an abortion are almost four times more likely than those who access abortion to live below the poverty line. Six months after denial of abortion, individuals were less likely to have full-time jobs and were more likely to need public support than those who had obtained abortions, differences that remained significant for four years.

States where abortions are banned or restricted could find themselves unable to attract talent for work, with a recent survey showing that about one third of job seekers won’t even consider moving to a such a state.

Employers are aware of the potential economic impact, says Lin. “Having access to reproductive health affects your workforce. For decades, companies have been talking about and promoting gender equity in the labor market and this is an issue that disproportionately affects female workers,” he says. “It also affects male workers who have parenting obligations or parenting wishes. The inability to do family planning is highly disruptive to one’s life.”

The impact of the decisions made about abortion will continue to be felt across America including among companies and workers, who will have to learn to navigate the political, social, and economic repercussions of the divisive issue. One thing that is certain is that it is not going to be resolved any time soon.

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