Corporate America buckles down for culture war on Roe v Wade

Republicans are mulling retaliation against firms providing benefits such as travel assistance for employees seeking abortion

After a supreme court decision that overturns Roe v Wade was leaked and signaled the impending end of federal constitutional protection for abortions, a trickle of companies have slowly started to announce policies that provide abortion access for their employees. But while the protections may keep employees and consumers happy, the threat of retaliation from conservative lawmakers looms.

Citigroup, one of the biggest banks in the US, quietly started covering the travel expenses of employees who want to get an abortion but are banned from getting one in their home state.

The benefit was not announced publicly. Instead, the company mentioned the change in benefits in a March filing for shareholders. Once news outlets began to report on the new benefit, the Republican ire began.

Conservatives in Congress asked House and Senate administrators to cancel its contract with the company, which issues credit cards to lawmakers to use for work-related flights, office supplies and other goods. A state lawmaker in Texas, infuriated by Citigroup, introduced a bill that would prevent companies from doing business with local governments in Texas if they provide abortion-related benefits to their employees.

“Citigroup decided to pander to the woke ideologues in its C-suite instead of obeying the laws of Texas,” said Briscoe Cain, the Texas state representative who introduced the bill, in a statement. “We will enact laws necessary to prevent this misuse of shareholder money and hold Citigroup accountable for its violation of our state’s abortion laws”.

Citigroup has now been joined by Amazon, Apple, Yelp, Match Group, Tesla and Levi Strauss & Company, all which have said they will offer travel assistance to employees who are in states that restrict abortions. Insiders at JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs have told news outlets they too are considering similar policies.

“I expect there will be a significant shift and the most leading companies are going to recognize that they need to protect the healthcare of their employees,” said Shelley Alpern, director of shareholder advocacy at Rhia Ventures. “Most companies would like to avoid taking a public stance on this issue because it’s so controversial, but there are higher risks for companies when they don’t protect their employees’ healthcare access.”

In today’s heated political climate – and with midterm elections looming – corporate America can expect a fiery response to any stance it takes on Roe’s fall. But given the widespread impact the end of Roe v Wade will have on much of the country – 26 states will restrict abortion access if the decision is overturned – it is unlikely that companies can get away with not responding to the issue once the supreme court makes its final decision.

Neeru Paharia, an associate professor at Georgetown University McDonough School of Business, said that people expect more out of companies as trust in government has fallen.

“People are enacting their political will in the marketplace,” she said. For consumers, a purchase from a company can be a symbolic sign of support. For employees, their identities can be tied to the ethical positions of the company they work for.

Over the last few years, corporate America has started to become more vocal on various issues that have gotten the attention of conservative lawmakers, including voting rights and LGBTQ+ issues. But conservative politicians have gotten bolder at fighting back against what they consider to be “woke capitalism”.

While the GOP has historically positioned itself as the business-friendly, tax-cutting political party, conservative lawmakers have been emboldened to threaten and punish companies who speak out on controversial issues.

Last month, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, revoked special land use privileges the state gave to Disney for its Disney World theme park in Orlando after the company – responding to backlash from employees and consumers – spoke out against the state’s “don’t say gay” law. The move appeared to catch people by surprise. Lloyd Blankfein, former Goldman Sachs CEO, tweeted that the move “smacks of government retaliation for exercising free speech. Bad look for a conservative.”

“That was really shocking,” Paharia said. “Now you have a situation where consumers and employees want companies to take a political stance, but then you have governments that are possibly retaliating against them.”

When it comes to abortion, “even though it might not be [explicitly] taking a side … [companies] are taking a position based on the kind of benefits they are going to offer their employees”.

The threats lawmakers have made have so far not come to fruition, but the party seems serious on trying to penalize companies in some way. The Republican senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill this week that would not allow companies to deduct abortion-related travel benefits as regular employee benefits when a company files its taxes.

“Our tax code should be pro-family and promote a culture of life,” he said in a statement.

With these warnings, companies may try to keep the introduction of abortion-related quiet or downplay their significance. When Citigroup’s CEO, Jane Fraser – the first woman to lead a major American bank – was asked in a shareholders meeting about the company’s new abortion travel benefit, she said the benefit “isn’t intended to be a statement about a very sensitive issue”.

“What we did here was follow our past practices,” she said, adding that the company had “covered reproductive healthcare benefits for over 20 years. And our practice has also been to make sure our employees have the same health coverage, no matter where in the US they live.”

Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy at Tara Health Foundation, who helped coordinate the signatures of over 180 executives in a statement against abortion bans in 2019, said the potential backlash from conservative lawmakers proves that companies need to act on abortion restrictions beyond mitigating effects for their employees.

“They can buy all the plane tickets their workers need, and that addresses the immediate harm, but the structural deficiency is the collateral damage,” she said. “The supreme court case didn’t happen in a bubble … you’re kind of walking over the rubble.”

Beyond benefits for employees, Stark has been advocating for companies to use their lobbying powers and scrutinize political donations as state lawmakers prepare to restrict abortions.

“We are at the moment everyone’s cried wolf about. It’s here, but there was also a lot of headwind,” she said. “What companies can do with a stroke of a pen to mitigate some of the harm is important, but the larger issue is getting out of this structural whirlpool that we’re in.”


Lauren Aratani

The GuardianTramp

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