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Is This Working?: As Supreme Court weighs abortion, ‘the corporate response behind the scenes is growing.’ Here’s what 3 companies are thinking.

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Welcome to Is This Working?, a column about the future of work through the lens of gender. That’s a question many workers, particularly women, are asking nearly two years into a pandemic that has strained many systems to their breaking point, laid bare longstanding inequities, and prompted people to reevaluate what they want and need from work. 

Earlier this week, we looked at the burgeoning corporate response to abortion restrictions in the U.S., including a smattering of declarations specifically tied to the near-total abortion ban Texas enacted last fall, as well as how defenders of abortion rights are pushing corporate America to act. 

But we also wanted to know what some individual companies are doing to anticipate the potential fall of Roe v. Wade, which has far-reaching implications.

“I think what we saw in Texas is kind of a dry run for what companies are going to have to grapple with on a national level,” Jen Stark, the senior director of corporate strategy at the Tara Health Foundation, said of the dozens of states poised to enact abortion restrictions if the Supreme Court rules in Mississippi’s favor.

Stark added “the corporate response behind the scenes is growing” with the Supreme Court decision looming this year and state-level restrictions advancing in states like Florida and Ohio.

Companies are comparing notes on how they’re preparing to help workers offset additional travel costs for seeking abortions, including as part of existing programs that help workers travel for medical needs; ensuring comprehensive insurance coverage for contraception and abortion; wrestling with their vulnerability to and impact of state restrictions; and communicating policies to employees, she said.

More companies have also reached out to Rhia Ventures, a nonprofit that makes direct investments through its venture fund in companies innovating in reproductive and maternal health and receives funding from the Tara Health Foundation, in recent weeks to learn about implementing policies to mitigate the impacts of abortion restrictions, according to Shelley Alpern, Rhia’s director of corporate engagement. 

“We are preparing correspondence from investors to lawmakers in several states that will be considering extreme abortion ban bills, and we will send an investor letter to companies in those states,” Alpern added.

To learn more about what business leaders are thinking as they await the Supreme Court’s ruling, we spoke with two companies and one ESG-focused investment firm that signed on to the Don’t Ban Equality in Texas campaign. Here’s what they said: 

Yelp: ‘We take action against abortion bans’

Yelp
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had previously been active on social issues including gender-neutral bathrooms, gun reform and the Bay Area’s housing crisis. In addition to backing the Don’t Ban Equality campaigns in 2021 and 2019, Yelp’s foundation double-matched employee donations in September and October to select abortion-rights organizations fighting the legal battle against Texas’s S.B. 8 and similar laws, as well as to groups providing on-the-ground reproductive health services and financial support in Texas. 

Yelp’s employees care about reproductive healthcare, “and they care about us caring about it,” Yelp chief diversity officer Miriam Warren told MarketWatch. “Fundamentally, it comes down to workplace equality,” she said. “If women don’t have the ability to decide whether or when they want to have children, it impedes their progress in basically every other area.”

“Yelp has a large megaphone,” Warren added. “When we speak out, it can move other companies to speak out, and we’re encouraged to see that more corporate voices are speaking up to say bans on abortion are not OK and violate women’s individual freedoms.”

After CEO Jeremy Stoppelman saw a 2018 “Last Week Tonight” episode on crisis pregnancy centers, which tend to offer pregnancy tests and resources but work to persuade people against seeking abortions, Yelp’s user operations team combed through more than 2,000 businesses and clinics and recategorized them accordingly to ensure such centers didn’t appear in search results for users looking for abortion services. This, Warren said, was a matter of making sure information on the platform is correct so that users can decide how to spend their money and time. 

Yelp wants to continue supporting organizations fighting the legal battle on the national stage as an increasing number of states weigh restrictive abortion laws, Warren said. “Now that we are a remote-first and distributed workforce, we have people all over the country,” she said, including about 100 employees in Texas. “For us, funding action at the national level continues to be important because we want women to be able to access reproductive healthcare no matter where they live.”

Meanwhile, a search of public campaign-finance records turned up a new dimension to Yelp’s vocal support for reproductive rights.

Mixed in with donations to many politicians who support abortion rights was Stoppelman’s $2,700 donation in 2018 to the U.S. Senate campaign of now-Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a longtime opponent of abortion rights and Roe v. Wade, and various donations in 2015 and 2016 to the campaign committee of Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who also has a record of voting for anti-abortion legislation. 

Related: Facebook, Google, Amazon and more marked Black History Month with fanfare — after donating to lawmakers who blocked voting rights bills

The Yelp Inc. PAC has also donated money to some conservative politicians who oppose abortion rights, including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rep. Darrell Issa of California and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. 

Asked for comment on these donations, a Yelp spokesperson provided this statement: 

“We take action against abortion bans that violate women’s individual freedoms in a number of ways, including using our voice to call out these inequities, making sure that when people visit our platform they can find the trusted information they need about the services they are looking for, and donations to organizations that are fighting the legal battle against abortion bans, as well as those that provide reproductive health services and financial support to underserved women.

“The company’s limited and bipartisan government relations effort is focused on advocating for antitrust policies that rein in Big Tech, which we believe is good for society.” 

“‘It’s becoming increasingly difficult for companies to stay on the sidelines on these kinds of issues.’”

— Chris Miller, Ben & Jerry’s head of global activism strategy

Ben & Jerry’s: ‘We align our business as best we can with our values’

Ben & Jerry’s, a Unilever
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subsidiary since 2000, has long taken progressive social stances and calls itself a “values-led business.” For example, the company said last year it would stop selling ice cream in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories because doing so was “inconsistent with [its] values.”

But while the company condemned Texas’s S.B. 8 in September, co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, who no longer have operational control of the company, faced questions from Axios a month later about why they were still selling ice cream in Texas.

“By that reasoning, we should not sell any ice cream anywhere. I’ve got issues with what’s being done in almost every state and country,” Cohen said. Greenfield added that “what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law.”

Chris Miller, the company’s head of global activism strategy, told MarketWatch that the situation in Texas was “very different” from the situation in the occupied territories.” “We take stands and we align our business as best we can with our values,” he said. “We don’t have just one tool in our toolbox — which is to say, ‘If we don’t like something, we’re going to stop selling ice cream.’”

Miller said it was important for corporations to continue to speak out on abortion access. He added that Ben & Jerry’s would continue to stand with other companies, publicize its stance in online posts and provide opportunities for fans of the brand to contact legislators. The company is watching the court cases closely, Miller added; it also supports the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would enshrine abortion rights in federal law, as well as Vermont’s “reproductive liberty” amendment, which supporters say would protect reproductive rights like abortion and contraception in the state constitution.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for companies to stay on the sidelines on these kinds of issues,” he said. “I think we’re going to see more of this, not less.”

As for employees’ access to abortion services, Miller said the company’s healthcare plans consider “both elective and therapeutic abortion to be covered benefits”; the company’s scoop shops are independently owned and operated franchises that manage their own benefits. Ben & Jerry’s corporate staff are for the most part based in Vermont, where abortion policy skews supportive.

“We are a part of the cultural and political debate on these issues, and we’ll continue to play that role,” Miller added. “We believe that low-income women and women of color will be disproportionately harmed by this kind of legislation [in Texas], and as a company deeply committed to issues of racial equity and gender equity, we believe this is a big problem.”

Trillium Asset Management: ‘You’re going to have difficulty retaining employees’

Access to reproductive rights “is going to start becoming more of a competitive issue for companies,” in a similar vein to healthcare benefits overall, says Jonas Kron, the chief advocacy officer of Trillium Asset Management
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an investment firm that engages companies in its portfolios to improve their environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) practices.

“​​If you’re a company that is in every state in the union and 40% of those states have very strict laws against access to abortion, you’re going to have difficulty retaining employees or attracting employees to move to those states if you don’t have a robust set of policies,” he said.

Trillium, which manages about $5 billion in assets, recently “lead” filed its first shareholder proposal on reproductive rights in coordination with Rhia Ventures. The proposal, filed at TJ Maxx and Marshalls parent TJX Companies
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requests that the company issue a public report before Dec. 31 “detailing any known and any potential risks and costs to the company caused by enacted or proposed state policies severely restricting reproductive rights, and detailing any strategies beyond litigation and legal compliance that the company may deploy to minimize or mitigate these risks.” (TJX declined to comment for this column.)

As with the patchwork of healthcare access in the U.S. more broadly, the lack of a national approach to guaranteeing abortion access means employers end up filling the gap, Kron said.

“The best solution here is really a public-policy solution at the federal level,” Kron said. In the absence of that, “we need to do the best we can within the limitations that exist to support people who need to exercise their reproductive rights.”

“‘We know abortion restrictions predominantly affect lower-wage workers, predominantly women of color, who already face compounded barriers when it comes to health equity.’”

— Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy at the Tara Health Foundation

‘Just one lever that we have’

You might be wondering whether efforts by some companies with largely white-collar workforces to ensure their employees’ access to reproductive healthcare will actually change much for lower-income workers who don’t work for those companies, have fewer resources to travel, and are likely to be disproportionately impacted by restrictive abortion laws.

This is a point multiple sources echoed in interviews: Brayden King, a Northwestern University professor who studies the impact of social movements on corporate social responsibility, wondered if companies with employees at different extremes of the pay scale would provide the same reproductive-health benefits to employees at every pay level, or only to those at the top. Stark noted that “top talent will always be able to find access to the care that they need, despite the logistical burdens.” 

“We know abortion restrictions predominantly affect lower-wage workers, predominantly women of color, who already face compounded barriers when it comes to health equity and other supports that affect how they are able to show up at work,” she said.

Rhia Ventures CEO Erika Seth Davies, for her part, noted that the best practices mentioned previously in this column should apply “not just to the tech companies and the white-collar jobs,” but also to large national retailers that employ many lower-wage workers.

At least one piece of the solution, she added, is shareholder advocacy and corporate engagement to challenge the passage of restrictive state abortion laws and encourage the passage of federal legislation like the Women’s Health Protection Act.

“It requires the voices and it requires the lived experiences of women to really bring the significance of the problem to the fore — we can’t do this absent that,” she said. “This is just one lever that we have at Rhia Ventures, and a tool that we believe can be helpful in that effort.”

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