In the weeks since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the questions have only proliferated for companies looking to support their employees’ access to reproductive care: What’s the most effective way to help workers who need to travel out of state? How can they protect employee privacy? How should they prepare for potential legal challenges? How should they communicate what they stand for—not only externally, but to their own workforce?
While many employers were quick to announce travel stipends, relocation reimbursements, or other benefits for abortion care in the wake of the ruling, others are still deciding on their next steps. Human-resources leaders, in particular, are now tasked with creating a path through uncharted territory as they consider how to protect both their employees and their businesses.
To illuminate some of their considerations, we spoke with a top human-resources executive at a midsized New York-based company about how they’ve been navigating these past few weeks and what they’re currently wrestling with. We agreed to publish the interview anonymously, in hope that the candor that enables will make this even more useful for workers and managers at other organizations. Here’s what the HR executive said, in their own words, edited for space and clarity:
On deciding how to react to the ruling
We’re still making decisions. There have been different opinions on sense of urgency, and different opinions on where our focus should be. Do you focus on travel reimbursement? Do you focus on relocation support? Do you focus on the social-impact component?
I felt very strongly that I did not want to react quickly with action. I wanted to react really quickly with words and acknowledgement and intent, versus ‘Here are the six things that we’re doing.’ Unfortunately, I believe we’re in for a longer battle, and I don’t want to do anything that’s not scalable or doesn’t serve a broader purpose. So we’ve responded a lot with words. Our founder sent a message out to all our employees, with our stance that we feel reproductive rights are human rights. I credit our founder tremendously for not shying away from the stance we have here. We can lean into heavy phrasing and strong words to show our support.
One of the conversations we’ve been having is that those that are going to be deeply impacted by this overruling are not the folks that are working here. We’re a New York-based company, and we’re also an employer with the privilege and the ability to support our employees. We’re lucky in that we work with an amazing insurance broker. We have inside counsel, we have outside counsel, we have resources to navigate this. Whereas there are employers that for one reason or another—finances, state restrictions—are unable to, and their employees are the ones that are going to be deeply impacted. So what emphasis are we placing on the social-impact component to make sure we’re getting help to the people that need it, versus making a public statement like, ‘Look at all the things we’re doing’?
On changing benefits
One of the things that we’re looking at is offering [abortion coverage] through our benefits provider. We’ve looked at amending our medical plans. A lot of employers will be doing medical-plan amendments. Those are going to be governed by the state in which they’re built, so ours is going to be governed through New York state.
One thing at the forefront of my mind is that solution only solves for folks that are eligible for benefit plans. You’re then talking about part-time employees that don’t have access to this benefit, so those that need the most support are not getting it. We’re looking into if we can amend our plan. I believe you have to work, on average, 30 hours a month over a three-month look-back to be eligible for benefits. Can we reduce that to 12 hours a month? We can’t dictate the design of our plan, so that’s a question that we have to put back to our provider and see how they respond. But we’re very open to changing our providers in order to provide the best access through our medical plans. Our open enrollment is in January, so we should have enough information ahead of that to make a decision about if we have to go out to bid with other providers.
The other thing we’ve explored that we’re not able to support is introducing a health-reimbursement account attached to a medical plan. Employers can put money into that account that employees can use for medical expenses, so it’s similar to an FSA, but it’s funded by employers. It has to be attached to a medical plan, so you’re still up against those limitations of who’s eligible for those. And there’s a heavy administrative uptick, which we truly don’t have the resources for.
We’re not quite at the conversation yet of what legal risks we’re going to take on. Some of these big companies that got so much publicity—can someone like Facebook cover a wellness fund, or cover your reproductive services out of pocket, and if that should expose them to a legal claim, do they have more resources to fight that then a company like us? Yes.
From what we’ve been able to dig into from a legal perspective, to [offer abortion benefits] outside of medical plans in a way that reduces legal risk from all angles is massively expensive. You can offer a reimbursement fund, but it has to be limitless. So you can call it a wellness fund, and it can be used for abortion services, or elective plastic surgery, or a spa, or a gym. When you think about how much money you can put forward to cover services related to reproductive rights, it’s a different story than, ‘Can I cover a gym membership?’
It all circles back to, how can you do this in a sustainable, scalable way? If we’re going to be doing this long-term—which I think we will—it’s legal risk, it’s administrative burden. Can we actually administratively support what we’re saying we’re going to support? What does this actually look like as it scales with us over the next 12, 24, 36 months?
On employee privacy
One thing that’s really nice about going through your medical plans is that they have to do it in a HIPAA-compliant manner. There have been plenty of articles about how as much as people are appreciative of employers trying to bridge the gap, they don’t want to go to their employer and say, ‘I need an abortion and I need money for it.’ If it’s an out-of-pocket wellness fund, I have to get that money to people in some shape or form, and I don’t know a way for a company to transfer money to an employee without knowing who. So a wellness fund isn’t off the table, but it’s right there on the edge.
We use an anonymous reporting platform to share feedback internally. Unless you want to share your name, there’s literally no way for us to connect it to you. So we’ve instructed people that that’s an outlet for them to use to communicate to the people-operations team about resources, whether it’s questions, what resources are available, etc. They can remain anonymous as they’re collecting some information that they need.
On choosing when to take a stance on social issues
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the demand for employers to respond to external events has become incredibly heavy. As employers, we’ve been reacting to a lot of external factors that are highly out of our control, more than we’ve been proactively making decisions: ‘Here’s more time off.’ Or ‘There’s too many meetings, here’s a no-meeting day.’ Or ‘There was another shooting. Let’s make comms about the shooting.’ ‘The comms isn’t enough. Let’s make a donation there.’ And the money and the resources and the time only go so far.
One of the things we’re trying to be more mindful of is when and how we respond, when we’re leaning in deeper versus when we’re not. When you think about employer branding and our social impact, how do we make decisions that align with these larger strategies? How do we do that work excellently, versus super reactionary and burnt out?
If this were to happen in early 2020, we would have spiraled: ‘What are other companies doing? We need to do it. Let’s tell employees we’re doing it.’ For better or worse, the past two and a half years have brought a lot of acute awareness to how complex these things are. There are legal complexities, administrative complexities. We can’t do everything and be everything to everybody, so there’s a lot of intentionality in not rushing to communications or a decision.
On values and retention
One of the conversations we’ve been having recently is, what does it mean to be competitive these days? In 2020 and 2021, especially with the ‘Great Resignation,’ there was so much of, ‘How do I retain every employee that’s here?’ Now, it’s ‘How do I retain the employees that are going to really succeed and find engagement in the environment we’re creating? Can we create a space where people who want to work here can really thrive?’
With our statement about reproductive rights, we didn’t put a ton of emphasis on the possibility of employee backlash. We connected our stance back to our core values that we live and breathe. They’re part of how we hire and how we measure performance, and a driver of how we show up every day. So when I say we didn’t put a ton of emphasis on it, that’s because there wasn’t a ton of concern that there wouldn’t be a lot of alignment.
On human-resources burnout
This is such a heavy component of my job, and has been over the past two-and-a-half years, that sometimes I have to distance myself from it when I’m outside of work. I’d be lying if I said we weren’t taking it one day at a time. I’m very grateful to have a strong team, and we do a really good job of keeping a pulse on one another to step in when somebody’s having a bad day. That personal connection component of our jobs are really important, because what we’re asked to do every single day is to put the business first.
And it’s really hard when there are things that are happening around the world that can very personally resonate to you. You think about some of the hate crimes that have gone on. You think about gun violence. You think about the war in Ukraine. You think about reproductive rights. There’s not a world where one of those isn’t impacting somebody on a very personal level. And especially when employees are like, ‘This happened 30 seconds ago, why haven’t you responded?’, you don’t have space to digest personally. There’s no way to avoid mental burnout for HR folks right now. Can you manage it? Yes, but I don’t think you can avoid it.
I’m blessed with a team that is so appreciative of everything that we do as a people team, but there’s a lack of recognition from the general public that what employers are doing is actually not an employer’s responsibility. We’re doing everything that we feasibly can do to close the gaps where the government and institutions are failing us, and it’s been really hard to navigate the lack of awareness or understanding in that. Like, in what world are employers responsible for ensuring reproductive rights and constitutional rights are upheld?