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What we lose when our jobs are the only safety net

As companies offer private help to women who need abortions in states that have banned the procedure, it’s just another example of how the quality of your life is determined by who your employer is.

[Source photo: chipstudio/Getty Images, syntika/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

In response to the recent decision by the Supreme Court that has allowed a growing list of state-level anti-abortion laws, a growing list of employers—from large corporations like Amazon to smaller companies like Patagonia—have announced that they will help their employees pay for travel expenses related to abortion. The list spans sectors, as well: financial institutes like Bank of America, national retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, and publishers like Condé Nast. Some, like Salesforce, will even help cover moving expenses for employees who want to relocate to a state with more compassionate healthcare laws. Good for them. It’s nice to know we can count on our corporate citizens to do the right thing for their employees—especially since nearly half of Americans could not cover an unexpected $400 expense for, say, an abortion, according to a YouGov survey for the Economic Security Project.

But do we really want large, corporate employers to have this much power over our health and livelihoods? Setting aside whether or not these policies will work in such a way that maintains employee privacy and confidentiality (concerns and uncertainty around which will probably lead to fewer employees even opting to use this resource), there’s a bigger issue: If you’re a stock clerk at Kroger in Little Rock, you’ll be able to expect financial support for reproductive care, but if you happen to work at the Walmart down the street in Walmart’s home state, your reality will be far more costly and potentially devastating.

Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, and family and medical leave are the only benefits fully mandated by federal law. For employers with 50 or fewer full-time employees, even providing health insurance is optional. And, given the lack of public health infrastructure in the U.S., it’s also often cost prohibitive for small businesses. With our partners at Reimagine Mainstreet, we recently surveyed more than 1,200 small businesses around various quality job dimensions. We found that while small employers generally see benefits as worker incentives, the majority report that offering benefits is cost prohibitive. More than 80% of the small employers surveyed offer employees some form of benefits, but fewer than half report that their benefits packages include health insurance or paid leave. Black-owned small businesses are least likely to report that they offer benefits, as they tend to operate on the thinnest profit margins in comparison to other demographic groups.

So, while an abortion-assistance benefit is perhaps the highest-profile way we’re seeing employers directly impact Americans’ well-being, we could easily substitute retirement contributions, paid leave, tuition support, or a livable wage in its place.

Employers paying for abortion-related travel is only the latest example of the many ways that we’ve ceded power, responsibility, and beneficence to corporations at the expense of our democratic institutions. This means less power for workers, who will now be evermore dependent on their employers for their basic welfare, reducing worker choice and power. According to a 2021 survey by West Health and Gallup, one in six workers are staying in jobs because they’re afraid of losing their health benefits, a fact that becomes more true for Black respondents and those earning under $48,000. More and more, if you live and work in the United States in the 21st century, the quality of your life is determined by who your employer is more than almost any other factor—including where you live.

Corporate actors are incentivized, above all else, to retain existing customers and employees, attract new customers, and fill the pockets of their shareholders. With the exception of more inclusive business models, like B Corporations and new stakeholder-governance structures, the vast majority of corporations are legally obligated to prioritize profit for the sake of their shareholders. In a country where corporations are the de-facto stewards of the public good, we can expect to see more public good with an asterisk.

For example, Starbucks is on that do-gooder list of companies that will fund abortion travel for employees, yet it has indicated that it cannot guarantee such health benefits as covered-employee travel for abortions or gender-affirming care to unionized stores. At the same time, the company is reaping the positive PR for its latest benefit; it’s wielding it as a cudgel against some of their workers.

And as with nearly all policies public or private throughout the history of the United States, working-class families and people of color stand to suffer the most in a country that has outsourced public good to private companies. Women and people of color are more likely to work lower-wage jobs, more likely to have informal work, less likely to have jobs that offer competitive benefits or any benefits at all, have higher unemployment rates, have more unstable employment, and hold multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. We also know that small, BIPOC-owned businesses tend to hire employees of the same racial demographic and operate at thinner margins than white-owned businesses, affecting the quality of jobs that they’re able to provide. All this means, women and people of color are more likely to be excluded from the benevolence of these new private “public goods,” further stratifying the haves from the have-nots and limiting the economic power of communities who need it the most.

The corporations offering abortion assistance alone employ somewhere around 5 million people in the U.S. Most, if not all, have lobbyists or public affairs offices and the ability to take their concerns to Congress. As a first step, they’ve all publicly stated their commitment to taking care of the health of their employees; but as a next step, they should band together—as they do for their business concerns through organizations like the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—and lobby lawmakers to pass laws guaranteeing support for every American to access the programs they’ve been picking up the slack for.


Adrienne Russman is the director of knowledge and insights at Common Future. Lauren Paul is the director of policy and partnerships at Common Future. More