(The Hill) — The nation’s largest companies are pledging to cover employees’ travel expenses to access abortion services, deciding an additional benefit for workers in a tight labor market outweighs the threat of legal action from states that have criminalized abortion.
Walt Disney, Comcast, PayPal, Nike and other major employers announced those benefits on Friday shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and upended a nearly 50-year precedent that guaranteed the right to abortion. Several other top employers implemented similar policies after the draft ruling was leaked last month.
The wave of announcements came even as some GOP state lawmakers said they intend to go after employers that help their workers get an abortion, indicating that big companies are largely willing to take the risk to help hire and retain employees.
“Everyone’s scrambling to have the employees they need, and so employers are asking themselves: Could I stand the possibility of a lawsuit against the certainty that some employees may just not stay with me if I don’t support this? It’s not an easy call to make, but I could imagine a lot of people ending in that place,” said Sandra Sucher, a professor of management at Harvard Business School.
Ten states have already implemented laws to either ban abortion with very limited exceptions or heavily restrict access to the procedure. Roughly half of U.S. states are expected to enact near-total abortion bans, which would force people in some states to travel enormous distances to access an abortion clinic.
Most large employers already covered abortions in their health care plans. Now, some firms, including Netflix, are paying as much as $10,000 to cover an employee’s out-of-state travel for the procedure. They’re under pressure to provide the benefits amid a tight labor market, where more than 11 million jobs remain unfilled and employers struggle to attract workers.
The Society for Human Resource Management said in a note that employers are offering abortion benefits as a way to “enhance their ability to compete for talent.” Those policies include allowing workers to pay for travel using their health savings accounts.
“But how these policies interact with state laws is unclear, and employers should be aware of the legal risks involved,” Emily Dickens, the group’s chief of staff and head of government affairs, said in a statement.
Companies could face lawsuits from states or, in Texas, from anti-abortion activists under a state law that empowers citizens to enforce the abortion restrictions. Employers would likely cite the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which blocks states from placing mandates on employer-sponsored health plans, but it’s unclear how those lawsuits would play out in court.
Texas GOP lawmakers recently warned Citigroup and Lyft against going through with their policies to reimburse workers who travel out of state for an abortion, threatening legal action.
Some companies are taking a more cautious approach. In a statement following Friday’s ruling, Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent company, said it intended to reimburse travel costs for employees seeking an out-of-state abortion “to the extent permitted by law.”
“We are in the process of assessing how best to do so, given the legal complexities involved,” the tech giant said.
Businesses also face the threat of political blowback in deep-red states for taking stances on abortion. Some hard-line Texas lawmakers have proposed barring corporations from doing business in the Lone Star State if they help pay for out-of-state abortions.
Still, that aggressive rhetoric ignores the reality that only a small number of major companies, including Yelp, Condé Nast and Levi Strauss & Co., have spoken out against the ruling and subsequent Republican efforts to ban abortion.
While companies tout ensuring abortion access as an employee benefit, corporate America has remained quiet on the merits of the issue, even as the general public largely backs abortion rights. A recent poll from CBS News and YouGov found that 59 percent of respondents opposed the Supreme Court decision.
“I don’t think that this is an area where companies feel they’re taking a political stance, as much as protecting employee rights,” Sucher said. “The core right is that employees get to decide how to manage their own health, and employers offer benefits to serve those employees and their health needs.”
Most large companies have kept the focus on protecting their own employees’ rights. Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, Starbucks, Microsoft and Mastercard are among firms that announced travel reimbursement policies without weighing in on the abortion debate.
Vanessa Burbano, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, said the trend isn’t surprising, as some major companies have found in recent years that taking stances on polarizing issues has led to negative blowback that tends to overshadow positive feedback from others.
“Companies recognize that this is something that a group of employees may care a lot about, and so they’re trying to address that without making these broad stroke statements that people outside of their core set of employees may have reactions to,” Burbano said.
Companies are likely to keep the focus on their employees as they consider other policies, including relocating workers to states where abortion is legal, experts say.
Some large employers already offer that perk. Google reminded employees in an email following the Supreme Court decision that they could “apply for relocation without justification.”