We’ve Made Abortion A Work Issue. It Should Be A Healthcare One

Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe/Getty Images.
On June 24, Roe v. Wade was overturned by a majority Supreme Court vote, meaning that our constitutional right to access abortion care no longer exists. Of course, we saw this coming: On May 2, Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion on the 1973 landmark case was leaked, foreshadowing our dismal reality. Following those first few days in May, people took to the streets in protest. We donated to abortion funds at a record rate. We posted on social media. We called our representatives to demand justice. We all took stances — and so did our companies.
Since the news broke, a number of major corporations have come out with statements declaring that they will cover the cost of travel and lodging expenses for employees who will have to journey out of state to receive abortion care. Abortion care is covered in some way by most company-provided health insurances, and many of these travel medical policies already existed prior to Roe falling, but some have taken this moment to add extra benefits for their workers — or just reiterate their policies that were already in effect. (Vice Media Group, which owns Refinery29, has expanded its medical coverage to provide travel expenses for any out-of-state medical care, including abortions.)
And while it’s great that companies have made the effort (and can pat themselves on the back for the gesture), the question still stands: Why did it have to take a near ban to get our employers to loudly and publicly champion this basic need? The publicity these statements received have further exposed the immense failure that is the United States healthcare system: While companies should be supporting and standing behind their employees during these dire times, the truth is, access to abortion shouldn’t be dependent on our employment status or a company’s stance in the first place. Having a full-time job should not be our main lifeline to accessing healthcare, and getting an abortion shouldn’t be a privilege afforded to people who have the “right” kind of job and insurance. It should be accessible to everyone.
When we limit our care to what our companies can provide for us, we’re ignoring a significant portion of the population who don’t have full-time jobs or who don’t have employers that offer them access to subsidized health insurance and other health-related benefits. The 80 million people in America who rely on Medicaid are also often stuck thanks to the Hyde Amendment, which mostly prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services. As a result, the people who most need abortion coverage — such as low-income and undocumented people — are left out of the conversation, helpless and without the support they need.
And if you are lucky enough to have access to these kinds of jobs with these kinds of life-changing benefits, you may be in a situation where you feel stuck or unable to leave your job due to the perks they provide. “If all of your public benefits — access to healthcare, access to affordable abortion care, child care, paid family and medical leave — are tied to your employer, the minute you become unemployed, your health and wellness is immediately compromised, and it's likely compromised even into your ability to get your next job,” says Josephine Kalipeni, executive director of Family Values @ Work a national network that helps advocate for work policies such as Family and Medical Leave Insurance. “If you can't maintain your wellness and health and you lose your job, those gaps can be really problematic.”

“The demand for access to affordable and equitable and culturally competent healthcare that includes abortion services is not a new demand that employers haven't heard [before].”

Josephine Kalipeni
Even though abortion was a legal, constitutional right during the 50 years Roe was the law of the land, access to that right has always been restricted, especially for Black and brown people living in poverty. Where were our companies then? “It shouldn't take the threat of our constitutional rights being gutted when that's actually been the situation for so many years for employers to respond,” says Kalipeni.
Then again, employers (and, well, society) have long ignored the needs of women, trans, and nonbinary folks. And still today, compared to cisgender white men, we’re making less money, experiencing a higher rate of job losses, feeling more burnout on the job, and finding it more difficult to enter into the workforce — this is particularly true for people of color and those in marginalized groups. Gender equality, said headline after headline over the past two years, is moving backwards. “The labor of women and the condition under which we do our labor has long been undervalued, ignored, and neglected, and I think it's just part of the legacy of that,” says Kalipeni. “I'm really frustrated that we seem to only respond in crisis mode. The demand for access to affordable and equitable and culturally competent healthcare that includes abortion services is not a new demand that employers haven't heard [before].”
We’re not saying that these companies shouldn’t take action or make their stance known. Large corporations are the ones who usually set the standard for employers everywhere, and prioritizing this kind of healthcare has a positive impact on the state of work and the world around us. Speaking up doesn’t just help other companies follow suit in setting these precedents — it’s also important to new-to-the-workforce employees who want to work in places that respect and reflect their values. But these highly publicized statements and promises feel a bit reactionary, and in turn, only help tighten the ties between our employer and our access to healthcare. And let’s not forget — it’s also good for business for companies to align themselves with the more popular, progressive side during times of political turmoil.
These abortion care-related promises from our companies can be compared to appealing benefits such as paid parental leave, Liz Brown, law professor at Bentley University in Waltham, MA, tells Refinery29. “It's not something that anybody at any company in the United States is required to provide, but many large employers choose to provide it because it helps them attract and retain talent,” she says. That doesn’t mean they aren’t also fulfilling some kind of moral obligation — but it's often the case that companies will choose to do what’s moral if it’s a strategic move, too. Those who are forced to stay in a state where abortion is banned would rather work for a company who can offer them this benefit than a company who can’t — or won’t — at all. We also often align ourselves with employers who share the same values as us, even if it’s a possibility that they may only be virtue signaling.
And we need to be on the lookout for it. After the fall of Roe v. Wade both Dick’s Sporting Goods and Starbucks — like many other companies — issued statements saying they’d cover costs for employees who need to travel out of state for abortion care. But, over the years, Dick’s, as well as Starbucks and others, have also given money to the industry trade association the National Retail Federation (NRF).
The NRF in turn has donated to a political action committee (PAC) that has funded anti-choice politicians, according to the nonpartisan research group that tracks money in politics OpenSecrets. While the argument could be made that Dick’s and Starbucks have no control or awareness over who the NRF is specifically supporting, more generally speaking, this kind of donating to trade associations can allow companies to be more behind-the-scenes of political lobbying.
“The basic understanding is that a trade association acts on behalf of the industry in which the donor lies and may have more political heft than any company by itself. They kind of represent your interests and without having to, as a company, use your own resources,” says Sarah Bryner, director of research and strategy at OpenSecrets. “Trade associations don't have the same recognition among consumers that specific companies do, so they can take perhaps more unpopular positions and do the dirty work of lobbying on the unpopular provisions. And then the company who's supporting them doesn't have to take that burden and doesn't have to take the public pressure.” Refinery29 has reached out to both Dick’s Sporting Goods and Starbucks for comment, and hasn’t heard back at time of publishing.
So while these declarations of solidarity may help these companies from a PR perspective, there’s still a lot we should be questioning when it comes to what a company says and what a company does. “Money is power,” Bryner says, but she adds that we haven't really had enough time to see whether or not these companies have changed, or possibly donate to more progressive places in the future. Even so, criticism for corporate political behavior can be necessary, and as always, more than one thing can be true: Companies have an obligation to help their employees comfortably access their right to healthcare, but they may have played a small part in the reason we need to rely on their help in the first place. If companies actually want to stand by us, they may want to make sure their money impacts us, and the world around us, in a more meaningful way.

In an ideal world, our healthcare wouldn’t be so tightly wound with our working lives. Abortion shouldn’t just be a work perk.

While we may never know what happens behind a company’s closed doors and we shouldn’t take these statements at face value, offering to support workers who need to travel to get abortions is one of many things we need to navigate this chilling new reality. “I think we really have to think about how to be proactive versus reactive, especially when so many of the issues and supports that women need are already in crisis mode,” says Kalipeni.
Because we know that the state of our healthcare system isn’t exactly going to change anytime soon, it’s important for employers to continue to expand on and offer these services and, if they don’t, for employees to demand this kind of benefit from their employers. “I think that employers will offer it if there's a strategic need to offer it, and there's only going to be a strategic need to offer if there's a demand from the workforce,” Brown says. “I think that people should speak up and say, this is what we need.” Recently, more labor unions have been vocal about the need for reproductive justice in the workplace — Vox Media Union was even able to secure that right in their newest ratified contract. According to a tweet from the union’s account, Vox Media will create a policy that guarantees access to abortion and gender-affirming care, regardless of where that employee lives.
Beyond abortion services, there’s more to think about when it comes to work, the future of Roe v. Wade, and our dwindling rights. Lack of access to abortion has been shown to keep the most vulnerable of our population in poverty, prevent childbearing people from fully participating in society, and can and will cause irreversible mental and physical harm. Will employers provide financial and psychological support to workers who are forced to carry their child to term? What about compensation afterwards, to take care of the children they were forced to bear? Will we hold companies who give funds to anti-choice politicians accountable, or press them on expanding paid maternity leave for all employees? With that said, who will make sure that these employers actually hold up their ends of the bargain in terms of the promises they’ve already made? In an ideal world, our healthcare wouldn’t be so tightly wound with our working lives. Abortion shouldn’t just be a work perk.
These actions — although necessary — are just the first step in ensuring reproductive justice for all, regardless of employment status. Universal healthcare, childcare, and abortion care need to be recognized as the fundamental rights that they are. Our lives depend on it. “I am frustrated and scared shitless about what might happen, and I'm encouraged that states are not helpless in this,” says Kalipeni. “We, as individuals, are not helpless in this.”

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