In a labor market this tight, the questions from candidates about benefits have only grown more specific: Is egg freezing covered? Do you have an emergency fund for medical expenses? If I get Covid at a company meeting, what gets reimbursed? And likely, in the near future: Do you cover travel for abortion?
Last week’s reveal that the US Supreme Court appears ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that establishes the federal right to abortion, forces employers to a critical juncture. When the government literally leaves no choice, will the private sector—newly enmeshed in pandemic-inspired conversations about companies’ responsibility for their employees’ health and wellness—fill the void?
In December, UCLA law professor Jon D. Michaels and I co-authored a column arguing not only that companies should do so, but that it was the only way forward. Citing polling data that both men and women would balk at taking, or keeping, a job in a state with severe abortion restrictions, we wrote: “Research suggests that workers—at least those with market power—will be hard to recruit or retain in states where abortion rights are severely curtailed.”
We then posed a series of questions to prepare for threats to legal abortion. Key among them: “Will forward-looking businesses provide supplemental prenatal support, including money and time off for employees to travel out of state to secure a legal abortion?”
Over the last week, as the end of Roe has become much more of a reality, many companies have offered a terse “no comment” when asked about this. Yet others are formulating plans and programs for employees who might need to cross state lines to secure an abortion. Some have already been speaking out for some time. Late last month, in response to a bill in Oklahoma, Lyft issued a statement: “We believe transportation should never be a barrier to a woman’s access to healthcare.” (While Lyft and most other companies that have made statements have focused on women, abortion access also affects, and is especially precarious for, trans and non-binary people, who often have difficulty obtaining reproductive health care.)
At this point, a company with no policies around fertility, child care, or returning to work for parents will be at a disadvantage in attracting talent. More than 40% of large companies covered IVF in 2020, and nearly 20% covered egg freezing. In part, that’s because the workers affected by these issues are talking about them, loudly, to make sure others can understand why there is such a need for these benefits even without firsthand experience.
I am guilty of having that blind spot. In 2010, I was told my pregnancy was ectopic and had to be terminated. Because of a two-week absence from work, I decided to let my team and colleagues know what was going on. Two things surprised me in the aftermath. The first was how many of my coworkers wanted to talk about their own miscarriages and struggles in trying to conceive. The position of a manager in a relatable situation opened the floodgates, and I heard from literally dozens of people around the company.
The second was that fertility benefits, at least at that particular employer more than a decade ago, were fairly abysmal. I remember sitting in a human-resources office, unsure if one of my tubes had been affected by the pregnancy, crying over the prospect of having to spend tens of thousands out of pocket on IVF. Even as a manager in the organization, I had no idea before I needed help myself of what staff had to endure if they required reproductive assistance.
I’ve marveled at the progress and transparency around benefits from egg freezing to IVF to more generous leave policies since then. And over the last few years, a similar movement for transparency around abortion has grown, as people who have had abortions have decided to talk about it, often loudly, via tweet or T-shirt.
Workplaces that have rallied to support motherhood must now say the quiet part out loud: Abortion, or the ability to access one, is part of that family-friendly support. Research shows that people who get abortions often do so for economic reasons, as well as needing to focus on other children.
“Those who are single, child-free, or do not wish to have more children are a growing and significant portion of the workforce, and companies must consider how they will support them from a health and well-being perspective,” says Christy DeSantis, the practice lead at Lippe Taylor Group, and founder of the women-focused executive coaching firm Fiducia Coaching. “If Roe v. Wade is overturned, it will be a critical moment to decide how to adapt and safeguard benefits so that they continue to have thriving, diverse talent.” (Lippe Taylor, a public relations and digital marketing agency, has told employees it will cover the cost of travel and lodging to access reproductive care services.)
Another public-relations firm, Bospar, published a policy last week ensuring workers the same. Similar to Lyft, Bospar has been outspoken on abortion bans, offering to relocate staff in Texas affected by that state’s abortion restrictions, and is hoping other companies will follow its example. “We treated our policy like a product launch in an effort to show other companies that being pro-choice was good for business,” says Curtis Sparrer, principal at Bospar.
Opinions on abortion—when, who, whether, and how—vary, even as most Americans support it. The private-sector response to last week’s leaked decision has been underwhelming, especially against an outraged public sharing their feelings and, often, firsthand experiences with abortion. There’s real power in those stories. Whether they come from your CEO or your own mother or maybe even you, a collective cry for our employers to act feels like our last resort.