Following the US Supreme Court’s decision on June 24 to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that guaranteed Americans the right to an abortion, fashion and beauty companies have been quick to condemn the decision. For an industry made up largely of women, the challenge now is to turn words into meaningful action.
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A handful of firms across the industry have already announced plans to provide financial and other support for employees seeking abortion care, including those who must now travel to another state for an abortion. Nike, for example, said it will cover travel expenses up to $10,000; Dick’s Sporting Goods will reimburse employees up to $4,000; and Patagonia pledged to pay travel, lodging and food for employees on its health care plans and provide bail to staff arrested for peacefully protesting the Supreme Court ruling.
While the number of companies voicing their reactions to the ruling over the past week has steadily risen, most brands have not clarified exactly how they plan to provide abortion-related benefits. One reason might be that as the dust begins to settle, it’s increasingly clear that crafting and implementing these policies begs a host of ethical and legal questions that need addressing.
One key question is how far into a labour force should a policy reach? According to many of the announcements, companies will be offering abortion-related benefits to employees already enrolled in their health care plans — that is, full-time staffers, who are often based in corporate offices rather than, say, those working in stores, who are typically paid by the hour and part-time. Such moves are laudable, but the truth of the matter is that as well-intentioned as these policies might be, if they don’t include hourly workers, they’re not helping those most likely to be impacted: non-white, lower-income individuals and households.
Some companies are working to correct this: Levi’s said it has “a process in place” through which part-time hourly workers can seek reimbursement for abortion-related travel costs.
In addition, many companies rolling out these policies are based in states where abortion is and is likely to remain legal, such as California or New York. A fashion brand based in one of these states promising travel reimbursement, for example, may not ever have to act on their pledge. However, the rising popularity of remote work could mean that more employees are based outside of the state where their company is headquartered.
The new policies also bring up privacy concerns, with questions arising about whether employees will be required to disclose their abortion decisions to their companies in order to take up the benefit. Early solutions are emerging, with some companies tweaking the wording on policies so that employees could use the benefit without disclosing their circumstances. Others will have their employees submit claims through insurance providers or other third parties circumventing interactions with their managers and other company personnel.
Meanwhile, companies will need to determine what the consequences of these policies will be for their own businesses. They will have to work with legal teams to ascertain whether any assistance they provide could result in civil or criminal liability for aiding and abetting abortion access in states where the procedure is banned. It is uncharted territory, for sure. And though roughly 60 percent of Americans are in favour of unrestricted access to abortion, per Pew Research Center data, some companies may be wary of falling foul of those on the other side of the issue.
Women’s rights activists, social media users and prominent fashion figures are already sounding the alarm on a mismatch between big brands’ rhetoric and what’s happening behind the scenes. Sceptics are criticising some statements as marketing ploys or attempts to curry favour with current and prospective employees in today’s tight labour market. In her newsletter, writer Amy Odell pointed to contributions from brands that have publicly vowed to support women’s reproductive rights, like Nike, Victoria’s Secret and The Gap, to political action committees supporting pro-life politicians. (It’s worth noting, though, that most large companies have historically split political contributions across candidates on both sides of the aisle.)
It is too soon to say what a best-in-class policy will be for the industry in the long term. But what is already certain is that consumers and employees alike are looking for more than broad-brush Roe v. Wade statements that simply aim to placate the masses and don’t indicate a meaningful expansion of existing health care benefits.
THE NEWS IN BRIEF
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Compiled by Joan Kennedy.