The Fresh Hell of Depending on Your Employer for Abortion Access

Some companies say they will cover abortion travel. Here’s what’s wrong with relying on their benevolence.

Sarah Lazare

A Starbucks worker cleans the window next to a company logo at a coffee store on May 31, 2006 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Following last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down federal protections for abortion rights, major companies, including a number of Silicon Valley giants, publicly broadcast their intention to assist their workers in traveling out of state to obtain an abortion. Meta, Apple, Disney, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Condé Nast were among them, the New York Times noted, joining companies that had made similar pledges in May, when a leaked memo revealed that the Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. These companies include Reddit, Tesla, Microsoft, Starbucks, Yelp, Airbnb, Netflix, Patagonia, DoorDash, JPMorgan Chase, Levi Strauss & Co. and PayPal, the Times reports.

Meanwhile, Google pledged to allow workers to apply to relocate without justification” if they live in states that do not allow abortion. Uber reiterated that its insurance plans in the U.S. already cover a range of reproductive health benefits, including pregnancy termination and travel expenses to access healthcare.”

On its face, these gestures by employers may seem like a good thing. As Levi Strauss & Co. put it in a statement: Protection of reproductive rights is a critical business issue impacting our workforce, our economy and progress toward gender and racial equity. Given what is at stake, business leaders need to make their voices heard.” And perhaps such gestures are preferable to the alternative: offering absolutely nothing to workers who have been stripped of their core rights overnight.

But this response opens up another door to hell: The reality that workers will be even more reliant on capricious and self-interested employers to provide basic, necessary healthcare, handing bosses even more power, while giving workers one more thing to fight tooth and nail to protect.

Let’s look at how this approach has worked out for general health coverage. In a country that, unlike other industrialized nations, does not provide free and universal healthcare to its people, individuals rely on employers for this vital good. This means that a worker’s boss has control over their ability to get emergency heart surgery without going bankrupt, to pay for a child’s leukemia treatment, to get preventative healthcare to ward off serious complications, to afford insulin in order to not die from diabetes, etc. In other words, workers’ ability to keep themselves and their loved ones alive is decided by the whims of their bosses.

Routine, day-to-day matters — like asking for time off, or asking a boss not to sexually harass you, or even banding together with your coworkers to organize a union — have higher stakes under this system. What if a boss retaliates? What if you were already on thin ice? What if layoffs are coming down the bend and the slightest perceived act of defiance puts you on the chopping block? If you lose your job, you lose your healthcare. And if this healthcare is extended to your dependents and spouse, so does your family. 

And what of other, more-difficult-to-quantify matters, like personal happiness and fulfillment at work? According to a May 2021 survey from West Health and Gallup, one out of six adults who receives employer-provided healthcare is staying in a job they don’t want because they’re afraid of losing these benefits. Of people making less than $48,000 a year, 28 percent are staying in a job they don’t want for this reason. And for Black workers, it’s 21 percent. It’s difficult to overstate the significance of these findings. In a capitalist society, work is how we spend our lives. Squandering our one precious life in an unwanted job is a tragic waste.

Of course, the best way to protect one’s health benefits, short of winning universal healthcare, is to organize a union. Union workers are significantly more likely than their non-union counterparts to have health benefits at all. But imagine all the things workers could win if they didn’t have to spend their time at the bargaining table negotiating over their members’ ability to survive. If healthcare were off the table, because it was already provided by the government, maybe we would have stronger common good wins, or clauses protecting the right to strike under any circumstance, or 30-hour work weeks.

Now, apply this principle to the realm of abortion. To think of having to add protection of one’s ability to get an abortion to the list of things employers provide, and can therefore take away, is terrifying. First, no one should ever be in the position of having to talk to an employer about their need to travel out of state for an abortion. But secondly, some of the companies that are publicly claiming they will protect abortion rights are among the most viciously anti-union employers of our time. How will they use this new form of leverage to crack down on workers’ rights to demand better conditions?

We are already seeing an example in Starbucks, which has said that it can’t make promises” that any benefits for workers in need of abortions will be guaranteed for unionized shops, though they are currently provided. As labor journalist Steven Greenhouse noted on Twitter, Starbucks knows 1,000% that the union wouldn’t hesitate to accept such benefits. The only reason Sbucks says it can’t promise those benefits is to sabotage the union effort.”

Other companies making such pledges have pursued astoundingly anti-worker policies, like Uber, which is currently fighting against classifying its workers as employees, a move that would give workers access to key benefits, like the right to form a union and access to workers’ compensation. Do we really think that a company that doesn’t want its workers to have basic rights is truly committed to ensuring they’re able to receive abortions when they need one? 

Abortion travel funding shouldn’t have to be a chip on the bargaining table. But this is the terrain that unions must fight on. And they are, right now, some of their members’ best protection. As C.M. Lewis recently reported for In These Times, Vox Media workers had already anticipated the attacks on abortion rights and included protections in their demands for their contract negotiations, including assistance for those who need to travel out of state. And it looks like the union gained some real ground: On June 16, Vox Media Union announced that its ratified contract includes the stipulation that the company will create a policy on critical healthcare that includes guaranteed access to abortion and gender-affirming care, regardless of where in the U.S. union members live.”

There are a host of other things unions could be doing to protect union members. Dr. Rebecca Givan, a labor law expert, has suggested creative solutions, including using union release time — when an employer pays a worker their wages to provide union-related services — to help people get abortions, drive them there, or provide childcare.

Unions should absolutely be thinking along these lines. Any step that could put abortion protections in the hands of workers, rather than their bosses, is a good thing. 

But let’s be clear-eyed about what the attack on abortion rights does. By stealing, suddenly and traumatically, a fundamental right to one’s bodily autonomy and self-determination, the Christian Right is trying to create an official second class, one that is lesser than on an existential level. A critical aspect of doing so is to strip away workplace leverage — to give people who need abortions one more thing they have to beg their bosses for. One more thing to protect in a society where the safety net is already thin, and working-class people face rising prices and a potential looming recession. One more reason employers can claim benevolence as they crush union drives.

The benevolence of bosses is not a reliable protection when it comes to reproductive rights. While union density is still low in relative historical terms, and economic circumstances are dire, we are in a moment when the labor movement is resurging, momentum is growing, and regular people, angry at their lot in life, are taking risks to organize their workplaces — from Starbucks to Amazon to Dollar General. There is an opportunity for this movement to become a political force for defending abortion rights across the board. We can’t only rely on the bargaining table to win back the societal rights we have lost. It’s time for the resurgent labor movement to organize like hell to say that this attack on self-determination and humanity is unacceptable, and will not be tolerated — in the workplace and beyond.

Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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