Retailers rush to cover abortion care, but not all of their workers may be covered

After the Supreme Court announced on Friday that a majority of the court had voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, retailers stepped up with their own announcements, pledging to protect employees even as the constitutional right to an abortion was eliminated.

Dick’s Sporting Goods, Patagonia, Levi’s and Starbucks were among the major retailers who have put out announcements since Friday in response to the ruling. Many of them stressed that they will support employees should they seek abortion care, and reimburse employees for expenses should they have to travel out of state for an abortion. However, what’s not immediately clear from some of these announcements is how many employees will be covered by these new policies. 

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Many large retailers typically employ a variety of part-time, full-time and contract employees through their stores, warehouses, customer service centers and corporate headquarters. For many of these retailers, the most straightforward way to assist their employees right now has been expanding health care benefits to cover travel for out-of-state procedures. However, in many cases this applies to those employees who have health care through their employers, which in some cases leaves out part-time employees. Meanwhile, smaller startups that don’t have as big of a budget are creating funds dedicated to abortion-related travel expenses to cover employees in affected states. 

Here’s just a few examples of how retailers have sought to protect their employees’ right to abortion care in the days following the Supreme Court’s announcement, and how the benefits offered vary:

  • Dick’s Sporting Goods was among one of the first companies to put out an announcement on Friday; In a LinkedIn post, Dick’s president and CEO Lauren Hobart wrote that the company will reimburse “teammates,” their spouses or their dependents up to $4,000 for out-of-state reproductive health care. “We are making this decision so our teammates can access the same health care options, regardless of where they live, and choose what is best for them,” she wrote. “This benefit will be provided to any teammate, spouse or dependent enrolled in our medical plan, along with one support person.” Dick’s Sporting Goods did not respond to a request for comment about how the company defines “teammates,” as well as which employees are eligible to be enrolled in the company’s medical plan.
  • Levi’s was one of the first retailers to put out a statement in May, when it was first leaked that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade. The denim brand reiterated that its employee benefits plan allows for “reimbursement for health care-related travel expenses for services not available in their home state, including those related to reproductive health care and abortion.” The company said in that same statement that “there is also 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.”
  • Patagonia put out an announcement last week stating that “all U.S. employees on our health plans are covered for abortion care. Where restrictions exist, travel, lodging and food are covered.” Patagonia also said that it would bail out employees who were arrested for peacefully protesting  for reproductive justice. Patagonia covers medical insurance for both full-time and part-time employees, and a spokesperson confirmed that the abortion care and bail policies applied to all full-time and part-time employees, including all employees in the company’s retail, distribution, operations and customer service divisions.
  • Chicago-based Flowers for Dreams, a flower company that services Midwest metro areas like Detroit, Milwaukee and Minneapolis, initially turned its Mother’s Day customer service portal into a legislative canvassing call center when it was leaked in May that the Supreme Court may overturn Roe v. Wade. “As the new reality settled in, our leadership met to quickly create a dedicated fund,” Flowers for Dreams co-founder and CEO Steven Dyme told Modern Retail. Flowers for Dreams announced its Reproductive Freedom Fund last week, which will reimburse employees up to $500 for any reproductive travel expenses. The company is allowing all full-time employees and their dependents access to the fund, “but that could change as things progress,” Dyme said. Currently, 68% of the company’s full-time staff is female, Dyme confirmed.
  • Haven’s Kitchen founder and CEO Alison Cayne also said that in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling, her startup — which sells cooking sauces — instituted a health policy in May to include out-of-state travel and lodging “for anyone who cannot access the health care they need within 250 miles of their home. No questions asked.” Cayne confirmed that anyone who qualifies for health care – full-time employees after 60 days of employment – will be covered by the policy. “This is a business issue and a public health disaster,” she said.

As the above sample shows, the variety of reproductive rights benefits that companies start rolling out are likely to vary, depending on how many part-time and full-time employees a company has, and what financial resources they have access to. Particularly in the retail industry, where the average number of hours worked is 30 hours a week, workers are less likely to have access to health insurance through their employer. 

Overall, there are about 15.7 million retail workers in the United States as of May 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Historically, roughly half of them don’t have access to employer-sponsored health care, according to 2021 BLS data. Around two-thirds have access to paid time off.

The Society of Human Resource Management earlier this year surveyed more than 1,000 HR professionals after the draft opinion of the Dobbs case leaked, and found a wide range of what was currently offered.

While 32% of respondents said they currently provide paid time off to access reproductive care, just 5% said they provide travel expense benefits outside of a health savings account for employees to access abortion services out of state. And, 4% said they offer company matches for employee donations to groups that support reproductive rights.

Such policies may become a new chip for companies to play as they’re hiring: the survey also found nearly a quarter of organizations agree that offering a health savings account for travel costs enhances their ability to compete for talent. 

But “how these policies interact with state laws is unclear, and employers should be aware of the legal risks involved,” Emily M. Dickens, chief of staff and head of government affairs at SHRM, said in a statement.

The brunt of the Dobbs decision is likely to fall on the poorest communities, said Cynthia Sanchez, an assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work who specializes in underserved populations and health equity. 

“Women of means, women that have money, are going to be able to leave the state,” she said. “It’s the women living paycheck to paycheck who are not going to be able to afford it.”

Even if there are company reimbursement policies, Sanchez said the Dobbs decision could wind up causing women to have abortions later into their pregnancies as they spend time-saving up money to travel or filing requisite paperwork. 

“Those contract employees, those part-time workers, people with limited income, they’re going to end up getting abortions in much later stages because they weren’t prepared to go out of state,” she said. “It’s going to delay the needed health care.” 

Sanchez said she wonders whether federal tax incentives for reproductive care access could help woo more companies to provide such benefits. Otherwise, it may only be larger companies that can take on the additional benefit, she said. 

Relying on company benefits also leaves self-employed people without any protections, Sanchez said. 

Anna Hensel contributed reporting. 

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