The Supreme Court on Friday overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that protected a woman’s right to have an abortion—a decision that will have far-reaching implications, including on employer health and benefits strategies.
The reversal “ends the federal protections that ensure the rights to abortion, and it allows each state to put its own regulations in place,” says Becky Seefeldt, vice president of strategy for New York-based benefits firm Benefit Resource. Twenty-six states are “certain or likely” to ban abortion now that the high court struck down Roe, meaning many women would have to travel to get the procedure, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that studies sexual and reproductive health and rights.
As a result, several employers are expected to revisit benefits to help employees access abortions and cover travel and other expenses to states where they can legally receive such services. Several employers already have announced plans to help employees access abortions if the ruling were to be overturned.
After the Supreme Court leak last month of a draft ruling, employers including Amazon, Levi Strauss & Co. and Yelp quickly announced that they will expand their benefits programs to reimburse employees for travel costs related to seeking medical care that is not available near the employee’s home.
“As the pandemic has shown so clearly, public health issues are workplace issues. Business leaders are responsible for protecting the health and wellbeing of our employees, and that includes protecting reproductive rights and abortion access,” Levi Strauss wrote in a statement in May, adding that women make up 58% of the company’s global workforce of about 15,000 and that a number of those employees “expressed to leadership their growing alarm over the rollback of all forms of reproductive care” in recent years.
The clothing company said under its current benefits plan, employees are eligible for reimbursement of healthcare-related travel expenses for services not available in their home state, including those related to reproductive healthcare and abortion. There also is a “process in place through which employees who are not in our benefits plan, including part-time hourly workers, can seek reimbursement for travel costs incurred under the same circumstances,” Levi’s said.
Retail giant Amazon said it would cover up to $4,000 in travel expenses each year for non-life-threatening medical treatments, including abortions, according to Reuters. That benefit would begin in January.
Although larger employers, particularly big-name organizations with employees throughout the nation, are more likely to announce benefits changes, small companies are less likely to do the same, given cost constraints and a desire to stay out of a hot-button issue. Data from consulting firm Gartner, which surveyed about 350 HR executives last month, for instance, found that 60% of employers indicated they would not be offering any new benefits to support employees’ reproductive rights.
A number of HR leaders were preparing for the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision by examining coverage and thinking about whether and how they should expand benefits if the ruling were to get overturned. Seefeldt, for instance, said she was fielding calls from employers trying to prepare.
Still, statistics showed that many HR leaders remained mum on the news and had decided to take a wait-and-see approach. Data from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that half of HR leaders (51%) said that their organizations had not made a statement about their position on Roe v. Wade and that they had no plans to do so.
Now that the Roe v. Wade decision is officially here, experts recommend that HR and other company executives speak up as leaders in their organizations.
“Silence on this issue isn’t an option for organizations that are genuinely committed to fostering a healthy culture,” says Lorrie Lykins, i4cp’s vice president of research. “Leadership needs to ensure that everyone is clear on where the org stands, and I mean crystal clear—no ambiguity or corporate-speak. Messages should be grounded in the organization’s stated principles and values.”
Employers would also be wise to talk to their employees about the decision and get a pulse on how they feel about the news. That can help organizations decide if expanding benefits would be appropriate—as well as understand if offering mental health support on the controversial decision would be beneficial.
Examining benefits coverage
Immediately, employers should examine their health and benefits coverage to see what’s covered and decide if they would like to make changes. For organizations that offer nationwide coverage options, the lift is less than if you currently have a narrow network reserved to one state, Seefeldt says.
“If you do offer those nationwide benefits, as long as you’re part of a nationwide network that is covering those services, you really wouldn’t need to take any significant action because it would already be in that broader [benefits coverage] that you’ve made available to employees,” she explains. But the ruling on Friday allows states to regulate what happens, meaning about half of states would be likely to ban abortion, so employees would have to travel for the procedure.
“Ensuring that they understand what their state rules would be [following the change to Roe v. Wade] would be the No. 1 thing to do, including where their state is going to fall on it,” Seefeldt says. “You may not need an action plan if your state’s unlikely to change its position. But roughly half of states do follow federal laws and do plan to continue to follow the federal rules [surrounding abortion].”
Employers will want to look at their coverage plans and understand what could change and what would be covered. From there, decide if you want to change anything or add coverage. Do you want to offer additional funding for those travel-related expenses? Do you want to offer similar benefits?
“If there’s an intention to expand benefits, this should be communicated too, with the pledge that the workforce will be kept updated as things evolve,” says i4cp’s Lykins. “Again, open and consistent communication is key.”
In addition to examining or expanding healthcare coverages or adding travel expenses, employers may focus on expanding other benefits—under the assumption that more women may have children if abortion is less common. More robust paid leave, flexible schedules, childcare benefits and adoptive benefits may all come into play.
Though some companies are choosing to stay silent in the wake of the landmark reversal, many organizations have decided to take a stance on the issue. The moves are part of a larger trend of employers speaking up on social issues that are important to workers; with healthcare and women’s rights in the spotlight, employees are prioritizing purpose and action from their employers.
“As the workforce becomes more employee-focused, the new trend will continue to challenge more companies as they need talent as well as retention. Workers are no longer being quiet on these issues,” says Stacie Haller, career expert at ResumeBuilder.com.