Employers’ Commitments to Providing Abortion Access for Employees Underscore the Need for Unions

Swap Agrawal

Swap Agrawal is a student at Harvard Law School.

Reproductive justice organizations have not been alone in responding to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe in its decision in Dobbs last week — employers have also made moves to secure abortion access for their employees. Specifically, many companies have committed to financially assisting employees who now have to travel out of their state to access abortion care. The list of employers includes large retail and gig platform companies such as Starbucks, Macy’s, H&M, Nordstrom, Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Patagonia, Apple, Amazon, Lyft, DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber, among others. While many supporters of abortion rights have celebrated these corporate commitments, some employees at these companies have found that the devil is in the details.

On June 24, Starbucks said that it will reimburse abortion travel expenses for employees enrolled in its health plan if an abortion provider isn’t in the employee’s state of residence or within 100 miles of their home. However, many employees at Starbucks and similar companies will not be able to access this benefit. Many employees at Starbucks are not on the company’s health insurance plan, including many employees who are under 26, workers who cannot afford the plan and are on state-subsidized insurance, employees who are on their partner’s insurance, and employees who do not work enough hours to qualify for the health insurance plan. Moreover, employees in retail and food service industries often work inconsistent hours and have trouble getting time off, which could prevent many workers from utilizing abortion benefits.

Workers also allege that Starbucks is using its new abortion benefit as a bargaining chip to convince employees not to unionize.  The company’s official statement indicated that it could not “make promises or guarantees about any benefits” for unionized stores. Maggie Carter, a barista in Knoxville, said that her manager has still not answered questions about the availability of the new benefit at her unionized store. “It makes me feel disgusted that they’d dangle abortion over people’s heads as if it’s a cat toy, when women are literally losing their rights to bodily autonomy,” Carter said. “I think they’re trying to burnish their progressive reputation, while scaring their employees away from unionizing by suggesting that none of their benefits are secure,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.

However, the lack of access to the abortion benefit at unionized and non-unionized Starbucks locations alike simply underscores the need for workers to organize and negotiate with management for a collective bargaining agreement that ensures that workers have comprehensive access to abortion care, including coverage of travel-related expenses and paid time off regardless of where in the U.S. they live or their role at the company. Unions like the NewsGuild-CWA are already thinking about collective action to strengthen their bargaining agreements, and Vox Media Union recently announced that their CBA includes a commitment from management to create a policy that guarantees abortion access including a $1,500 stipend to travel if care is not available within 100 miles. “I suspect we will not be alone in making abortion access a priority in contract negotiations,” said Writers Guild of America East executive director Lowell Peterson, whose union negotiated the abortion access provisions at Vox.

Major unions are also speaking up on access to abortion care. AFL-CIO President Liz Schuler said “[w]e strongly believe that everyone should have control over their own bodies, including decisions over their personal reproductive health care.” AFL-CIO general counsel Craig Becker said the federation is working closely with its state and regional divisions to “address emerging policy and legal issues and the impact on existing health plans and contracts and on collective bargaining.” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry stated that “[w]orking women are already struggling in poverty-wage jobs without paid leave and many are also shouldering the caregiving responsibilities for their families, typically unpaid.” “Reproductive rights are workers’ rights,” declared AFSCME President Lee Saunders. “The decision about when and whether to bear children is fundamental to the ability to pursue self-sustaining work.”

In securing abortion access for workers, unions should also consider pursuing new and unorthodox approaches to meet this critical moment. David Rosenfeld, a partner at West Coast union-side firm Weinberg Roger & Rosenfeld, said that if unions negotiate a travel stipend, it’s also important that they negotiate additional time off to allow workers to use it. Unions whose members are covered by multistate health care plans can consider pushing for reciprocal abortion coverage, allowing members in states where abortions are illegal to receive covered care where the procedure is allowed, with the home plan footing the cost, he added. Professor Givan has called for using union release time to help members access abortion care, including obtaining necessary transportation or childcare services. And some have called for more unions to use their healthcare trusts to guarantee abortion coverage.

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