In an uncertain legal landscape, why are companies offering to pay for abortion travel?

person holding 'keep abortion legal' protest sign on capitol hill
Abortion-rights activists demonstrate against the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade that established a constitutional right to abortion, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, 20 U.S. states have either banned abortion already or are likely to do so soon, The Washington Post reports.

For residents of those states who are seeking an abortion, their options are limited. Traveling to another state to get an abortion is legal, but the cost of doing so—which may include the cost of childcare or of missing work—means that for many pregnant people, this may not be feasible.

In response, some employers in those states are stepping in to cover the costs. Companies such as Disney, Comcast, Nike, PayPal and Netflix have released statements vowing to cover travel expenses for employees seeking abortions in other states. Other companies such as Salesforce and Google say they will allow employees to move to other states if they choose.

With the future of abortion regulations so uncertain, are these corporations taking a legal risk by enacting such a policy?

Northeastern experts say that despite the ever-changing legal sphere, companies are making the move for a variety of reasons that range from economic, to social, to moral.

Wendy E. Parmet, Matthews University Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and Jamie Ladge, Associate Professor of Management and Organizational Development. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Republican lawmakers have threatened to respond to corporations who have offered to pay for travel expenses for employees seeking abortions. But could a company like Disney really be charged with aiding and abetting illegal activity for providing this benefit?

It’s unlikely, says Wendy Parmet, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law and co-director of Northeastern’s Center for Health Policy and Law. “That would only be possible if it is illegal to travel out of state to get an abortion,” she says.

While we don’t know what the future may hold, Parmet notes that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in his concurring opinion that states cannot bar residents from traveling to other states, and that Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement that the Department of Justice would protect the right to travel between states.

However, this situation could change. “For the moment, it is likely a safe move” for companies to offer this benefit, Parmet says. “But in this legal landscape, nothing is certain.”

Then why are companies taking the risk? 

The state of the job market is certainly one factor, says Jamie Ladge, associate professor in the Management and Organizational Development Group of the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

“Employees now are almost a scarce resource” in the U.S., she says. Job openings are at an all-time high, NPR reports, and millions of workers have left their jobs in the past few years as part of the Great Resignation. In response, employers are striving to reverse the trend—after all, losing an employee and training a new one is more expensive than paying for travel costs, Ladge says.

That leaves companies with little choice, Ladge says, but to provide benefits that will keep employees from leaving. “Not that they shouldn’t want to do this regardless,” she says. “There are companies out there that may be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but it’s hard to separate that from the idea that retention is a big issue right now, and also that the power has shifted in recent months to the employees.”

Interestingly, Ladge says that employees don’t even need to use the benefit for it to entice them to stay at the company; it can be enough simply to know that the company cares about them. At the start of the pandemic, she says, people were more likely to stay at companies that provided benefits like paid COVID-19 vaccine leave, even if they didn’t use them. 

“There is plenty of research that suggests that any employee benefits that support the worker [or their family] increases retention, drives productivity, and so forth,” Ladge says.

Social media and the rise of online activism also likely play a role in making the choice to provide a benefit like this one, Ladge says. In recent years, employees and consumers have held companies accountable on social media and in the workplace, prompting companies to make changes. And when one company gets this type of attention, other big corporations may feel pressured to follow suit. 

Ladge believes there is a moral component to the decision as well. The corporate activism which we’ve seen in recent years—for example, engaging in diversity initiatives following the police-killing of George Floyd—could be happening because companies really care about their employees and the issues at hand, Ladge says. Greater diversity at the top, with more women and people of color holding executive positions, could also be a factor.

Regardless of the reason, the benefit could alleviate the burden of some women across the country who seek an abortion in a state that criminalizes it. But it obviously doesn’t apply to everyone. Disney has hundreds of thousands of employees, but their policy does not help women who work at smaller businesses that, Ladge says, may not be able to afford it. This creates a disparity in access.

“If it’s not federally mandated, there’s no leveling of the playing field,” Ladge says.

There also may be privacy issues when it comes to actually using the benefit, though Ladge isn’t too concerned about this. Instead, she compares it to IVF or any other procedure in which corporate policy protects employee privacy.

Even if employees were required to disclose why they were leaving the state, Ladge says, having such a policy might indicate that managers would be sympathetic anyway. This is an ideal attribute for any boss, she says.

“We spend most of our lives at our organizations,” she says. “We have to learn how to show compassion.”

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