When Where You Work Determines if You Can Get an Abortion

When Breanna Dietrich was 18 and working at a restaurant in West Virginia, she got pregnant. The father was a man she knew she wouldn’t marry. She considered getting an abortion. But the nearest clinic was four hours away and she couldn’t afford to take off work — so she had the baby girl.

That girl is now 17 and working at a restaurant chain that has not told its employees whether it will cover abortion-related travel expenses, though abortion is now prohibited in West Virginia. This past week, Ms. Dietrich urged her daughter to find an employer that would cover the expense.

“It would be awesome for her to move to a state that offers it, or at least work for a company that says, ‘Hey, we’ll foot the bill,’” Ms. Dietrich said, recalling her own struggle years ago to consider the logistics of an abortion. “How was I, at 18, going to be able to drive four hours away, pay for it, take off work? There would’ve been no way.”

In the week since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of federal abortion rights, dozens of large U.S. companies have said they will cover expenses for employees who need to travel out of state for abortions. Some companies even said they would relocate employees from states where abortion is banned.

Some business leaders now talk about access to reproductive health care as a benefit, akin to dental or egg-freezing coverage. Many of the companies quickest to come forward are those known generally for generous policies on paid leave, health care and other perks that proliferate in competitive industries. Abortion-related benefits are more divisive, of course, given that 37 percent of Americans say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

As the post-Dobbs v. Jackson landscape comes into focus, many women are discovering that, even more so than a week ago, where they happen to work can determine the shape of their lives outside work, too. Their job could be the difference between being able to get an abortion or not.

Employers have long held sway over workers’ reproductive health care — whether they can take paid leave to have a baby, afford child care or get access to birth control. About half of Americans have health care tied to their employers. But the involvement corporations now have in abortion access illuminates a stark divide.

For high-income women, an employer’s offer to cover abortion-related travel might be viewed partly as a signal of psychological support or a political stance. For women in low-income jobs, a company’s policy will determine whether or not they can afford to cross state lines for an abortion.

About 40 percent of American women cite financial reasons as a factor in their decision to get an abortion, yet many of the companies that employ the country’s low-wage workers have not announced that they will cover out-of-state abortion expenses. Some of the largest companies in retail and hospitality, industries whose work force is predominantly female, haven’t made a statement on the question.

“In low-wage sectors, this is going to become one of those issues where people are leaving low-paying jobs for slightly better-paying jobs,” said Bianca Agustin, director of corporate accountability for United for Respect, a nonprofit labor advocacy group. “Given the spread of companies that have public commitments, I imagine there will be some movement on this.”

Walmart, Darden Restaurants, McDonald’s, Home Depot, Hilton, Dollar General and FedEx, which together employ millions of people across the country, have not said whether they will cover travel for out-of-state abortions. A spokeswoman for Walmart, which has 1.7 million U.S. workers, said the company regularly reviews its benefits based on demand from employees, and the company is now “looking at the evolving federal and state landscape” as it considers its offerings. The rest of the companies listed did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“We are working thoughtfully and diligently to figure out the best path forward, guided by our desire to support our associates, all of our associates,” wrote Doug McMillon, Walmart’s chief executive, in a memo to staff on Friday.

Amazon, the country’s second-largest private employer after Walmart, said it would cover out-of-state abortion travel for its employees, most of whom are hourly workers. But that benefit applies to employees on its health care plan, not the contractors who make up a substantial portion of its work force, such as its vast network of delivery drivers.

As the list of companies covering abortion-related travel grows longer, some workers wonder why their employers won’t do the same. Isabela Burrows, 19, who works at a PetSmart in Howell, Mich., learned that Roe v. Wade had been overturned from a customer last week and grew frustrated that her company hadn’t said anything. Michigan has an abortion ban that has been blocked in court and that Democratic leaders have said they will not enforce.

“I wish they would do something,” Ms. Burrows said of her employer. She said her greatest source of relief has come from reading about the companies that have announced new reproductive health care benefits. “They cared enough that they would send you to go get the help and care you need.”

PetSmart has not announced plans to cover abortion-related travel for its employees, and the company did not respond to a request for comment on whether it plans to do so.

A company’s policies on reproductive health care access could affect how desirable it is to job candidates in what remains a tight labor market. A survey of college-educated workers, commissioned by the Tara Health Foundation, found that 70 percent said companies should address abortion access as part of their gender equity efforts. A survey from Morning Consult, also commissioned by the Tara Health Foundation, found that 71 percent of adults said people should consider a state’s social policies when deciding whether to move there.

Vanessa Burbano, a management professor at Columbia Business School, said that for workers who live in states where abortion is no longer legal, the policies their employers set do more than just signal a company’s politics.

“There’s a tangible, real world implication for your own personal health care,” she said, adding that employers are striking a delicate balance. “They’re trying to walk the very fine line of not making these big, broad, public blanket statements about the issue while simultaneously trying to address concerns of their employees.”

Gina Lindsey, 48, a public-school teacher, recalled that when she sent her daughter off to college four years ago, she advised her to make pay, benefits and sense of purpose priorities when looking for a job. Now Ms. Lindsey urges her daughter to take into consideration the employer’s approach toward out-of-state abortion coverage.

“That’s going to become part of the calculus,” said Ms. Lindsey, who lives in Ohio, where abortion is now banned after six weeks of pregnancy.

She worries, though, about the many people her daughter’s age whose employers will not cover their abortion-related travel expenses. “How many people are able to get a job at Google?” she asked. “How many people are able to get a job at Disney? How many people truly have that opportunity, especially in states where the bans are in place?”

Most people don’t plan to need abortion-related travel benefits: “Very rarely do people think that they themselves are going to need an abortion,” said Diana Greene Foster, a demographer at the University of California, San Francisco, and the principal investigator of the Turnaway Study, which looked at the economic consequences of having or being denied an abortion. “I doubt they would switch jobs because they think they themselves will be affected.”

And if they do want to switch, finding a job with expanded reproductive health benefits can be difficult. Rhonda Sharpe, an economist and the president of the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity and Race, said the women in low-wage jobs most likely to need these benefits are least able to conduct a job search — and cover the expenses in child care and time off work that can come with it.

Relying on employers to bridge the gap between workers and reproductive health services will become more difficult, legal experts warn, as anti-abortion groups say they will try to ban out-of-state abortions and penalize the companies that fund them. While employers determine how to actually roll out their new travel policies, weighing issues related to privacy and taxes, they’re also facing the prospect of legal challenges.

“The employers we’ve been counseling are looking at it all different ways and trying to minimize the risk to everyone,” said Amy Gordon, an employee benefits partner at the law firm Winston & Strawn.

Ms. Dietrich, in West Virginia, had to quit her food service job last year because of health issues related to another pregnancy. Her employer at the time didn’t offer maternity leave. She wants to help her daughter find a workplace that’s more caring — and they’re starting by looking at those that will cover abortion-related travel.

“It shows they’re listening to workers,” she said. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, look, I will help you to get where you need. You’re not trying to figure it out yourself.’”

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