They should. Other employers should also do so.
Twenty-six states would have to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned, as seems likely when the Supreme Court issues its final opinion.(1) Losing access to abortion could have huge implications for the workforce by forcing women to have more of children. than they want or to start a family sooner than expected. Women make up half of the workforce, although their disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities already makes them more likely than men to work part-time. Roe’s repeal could exacerbate these circumstances; most women seeking an abortion cite economic or professional reasons.
Roe’s overthrow would turn some large cities, where many large employers are based, into abortion deserts.(2) This means that employers with a significant presence in cities like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, and Cincinnati have choice to be made on how they will extend their health coverage to support female employees. (Walmart, Kroger, Target, Delta Airlines, Home Depot, Procter & Gamble, and Wells Fargo didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to share their policies, but I’ll update this column if they respond.)
Whether they like it or not, employers are right in the middle of one of the most contentious issues in American politics. Indeed, Walmart, Lowe’s and TJX are already facing proxy votes from activist shareholders on the issue.
For businesses struggling to know what to do, there are ways to support abortion access in accordance with their existing healthcare policies and practices. A few guidelines to keep in mind:
Think of it as health care (because it is)
Abortion is health care, and employers are by far the largest providers of health insurance in the United States. A company policy that will cover travel costs for a visit to a remote specialist should also cover abortion if the patient-employee is unable to access it locally. This is how Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup, explained to shareholders: “We have covered reproductive health care benefits for more than 20 years, and it is also our practice to ensure that our employees receive the same health coverage no matter where in the U.S. they live.”
This echoes the language used by Yelp to describe its position: “As a remote company with a distributed workforce, this new benefit allows our U.S. employees and their dependents to have equitable access to reproductive care, regardless of their place of residence”.
One of the worst things employers can do right now is suggest they aren’t taking the issue seriously, a Sony executive found out Thursday.
The good news is that since many large companies already provide access to healthcare, many will have thought about how to protect employee privacy. After all, employees receive antidepressants, colonoscopies, and gallbladder surgeries through employer-provided insurance without fear of the boss finding out. It should be no different for abortion. Yelp, for example, uses its insurance provider to extend abortion travel coverage to employees and their dependents.
Companies where this approach wouldn’t work could, however, follow the example of Match, the Dallas-based parent company of Tinder. As Bloomberg News’ Kelsey Butler reported, Texas-based Match employees can contact Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, which will then arrange their travel and accommodations, which are paid for by a fund set up by Match CEO Shar Dubey. Since everything is managed by a third party, employee confidentiality must be guaranteed.
Don’t worry about the reaction of customers or anti-Roe customers
Mike Toffel, a Harvard Business School professor who has spent years tracking CEO activism, said there was little evidence that anti-Roe consumers would punish a company for extending its health benefits from this way. I asked Toffel if, for example, a customer would hesitate before buying a new pair of Levi’s. It was unlikely, he said, unless there were picketers at the door of the store. Even in a polarized country, politics is not on the minds of most consumers when shopping. In addition, customers and the public often have short memories.
Employees are another matter. Workers tend to remember when an employer has supported them. That’s what Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan pointed out in an interview with CBS: “With all of these things, we’re looking at what our team expects of us. I could have a personal view, but that’s not what we do.
Ignore the inevitable political demagoguery
Politicians seeking media attention are likely to cause a stir. Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, has introduced a bill that would prevent companies from waiving abortion fees the way they can account for other business expenses, including employee benefits. A Texas state legislator sent angry letters to Citigroup. Republicans in the United States House of Representatives have threatened to void the bank’s government contracts.
That might alarm CEOs who are simply trying to run their businesses, but in today’s tense political landscape, it’s hard for companies to avoid being criticized from one side or the other. Moreover, enough companies have gone public with their plans to support abortion access that any company that sticks its head above the parapet is unlikely to become a major target. It takes courage to go first; it shouldn’t take so much courage to go 20th.
Covering an employee’s medical travel costs is a fairly moderate step compared to, say, asking Congress to enshrine abortion access in law or threatening to leave states that ban abortion. .
The situation is a bit like when Disney started offering health benefits to domestic partners of gay employees, Toffel said. It was far from calling for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Employers would no doubt prefer to focus on the many other issues they are currently facing: inflation, supply chain issues, staff shortages and the rest. But we don’t always get to choose our fights; sometimes they choose us.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Why Wall Street Can’t Escape the Culture Wars: Paul J. Davies
Yellen is right about the costs of overthrowing Roe: Julianna Goldman
A Christian flag has invaded Boston City Hall. It shouldn’t have.: Stephen L. Carter
(1) The six-week bans will also have an effect. Pregnancy is dated the first day of a woman’s last menstrual period, not the date of fertilization, so a woman who gets a positive pregnancy test 28 days after her last menstrual period is considered four weeks pregnant. 57% of abortions occur after six weeks.
(2) This would mean the average patient would have to travel 282 miles to get to a clinic, instead of the 33 miles they have to travel today, according to a study by Caitlin Myers, an economist at Middlebury College.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is editor-in-chief of Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was Ideas and Commentary Editor at Barron’s and Managing Editor of Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion