On Roe v. Wade, big business already has a precedent to act

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Abortion rights activists march through downtown after protesting outside the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. federal courthouse in Tucson, Arizona, U.S., May 3, 2022, after a leaked draft majority opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito bracing for a court majority to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade on abortion rights later this year. Photo taken on May 3, 2022.

Stringer | Reuters

With the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft ruling increasing the likelihood of Roe v. Wade, companies are under pressure to adopt more employee-friendly policies regarding women’s reproductive rights.

Over the past few months, several companies, including Apple, Citigroup, Salesforce and Yelp, have spoken out or announced changes to their employee benefits policies amid several state-led efforts to restrict or ban the ‘abortion. Last week, Amazon has announced new benefitswhile a few companies, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, said they were review existing policies following news that the nation’s top court is potentially set to overturn the landmark abortion rights case.

As the abortion debate heats up, some corporate activists are urging companies to move quickly to adopt policies more supportive of reproductive rights before any Supreme Court action. “Right now it’s a ripple, but it will become a wave, and once Roe is knocked down, it will become a tsunami,” said Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, a nonprofit shareholder organization. non-profit.

The corporate world is being watched for what it says – or doesn’t say publicly. Among the corporate giants that have been mum on the issue, some may be worried about engaging in a political landmine or angering some voters. But corporate social responsibility experts say that despite these concerns, it’s important for companies to address the issue of reproductive rights head-on.

“Public companies, whether they like it or not, are in the spotlight in this debate,” said Carla Bevins, assistant professor of corporate communications at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “They will continue to set an example for other companies,” she said.

Some companies have publicly urged other companies to take a stand. “Given what’s at stake, business leaders must speak out and take action to protect the health and well-being of our employees. That means protecting reproductive rights,” said Levi Strauss & Co. in a May 4 statement.

Admittedly, taking a stand on a polarized issue such as abortion presents challenges for companies that deal with multiple voters with differing opinions. That said, the message companies send doesn’t have to be “overtly political,” said Martin Whittaker, CEO of Just Capital, a nonprofit research organization that measures and seeks to improve business performance on factors. environmental, social and governance. “If you focus on it as a health issue, that’s probably the safest ground,” he said.

Citigroup has done just that, for example, and its CEO explained the company’s position in response to a question posed at its April 26 annual general meeting about its policy on payment for employee travel related to seeking an abortion. “We know this is a topic that people are passionate about. I want to clarify that this benefit is not intended to be a statement on a very sensitive issue,” CEO Jane Fraser said at the time.

Companies have provided abortions for years, and their policy change is now consistent with that, said Shelley Alpern, director of corporate engagement at Rhia Ventures, which invests in reproductive healthcare solutions that empower women. “They should act now to mitigate what is coming,” she said.

Yelp, in a statement provided to CNBC, called on Congress to codify women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies. Yelp also said companies should “step up protection for their employees and provide equal access to the health services they need, no matter where they live.”

In addition, company policies that pay for travel when needed to receive health care are not limited to abortion, with Amazon among those noting coverage for travel related to many conditions, treatment for cancer to mental health and addiction, where there are no medical options within 100 miles of an employee’s home.

For many years, Citi has offered a travel benefit that typically allows employees to access specific healthcare services, such as transplants, bariatric or orthopedic procedures, outside of their region.

“What we’ve done here is follow our past practices,” Fraser told shareholders. “We’ve covered reproductive health care benefits for over 20 years. And it’s also our practice to make sure our employees have the same health coverage no matter where they live in the United States. So, to that end, we’ve had a practice of refunding travel for many years. We respect everyone’s opinions on this,” she said.

This approach to employee health benefits has been used by Walmart for years, which has partnered with “Centers of Excellence” across the country to provide healthcare services, as well as travel and accommodation, to employees for conditions such as bariatric surgery, spinal health and heart disease, cancer care and other conditions.

More from CNBC on abortion policy and leaked SCOTUS draft advisory

It would be naïve to think that any response to the Supreme Court’s decision, even one centered on a company’s own employees, will be able to avoid the political fray entirely. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida last week introduced legislation to use the tax code to penalize companies that provide supplemental health and travel coverage.

In the meantime, companies that hide their plans from stakeholders, including employees, investors and customers, risk making a mistake, according to corporate responsibility experts. A company’s prolonged silence could easily backfire and lead to loss of credibility with employees, consumers and shareholders.

Whittaker pointed to Disney’s recent cautionary tale. The media giant has come under intense scrutiny from employees and the public for its initial reluctance to speak out against Florida legislation dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.”

Company management said it thought it best to work behind the scenes, but then promised to support efforts to overturn the controversial law.

“What we’ve seen with Disney is that if you’re behind the scenes too much, it actually feels like a betrayal,” said Cait Lamberton, Alberto I. Duran Presidential Professor Emeritus of Marketing at The Wharton School.

Companies that don’t act quickly could ultimately struggle to attract and retain top talent. If you’re at the top of your class at Harvard and you get two offers from top companies, and one has a favorable policy and the other doesn’t, employees will likely pick the one with the favorable policy, a Behar said.

Additionally, as expanded benefits become the norm, companies that are slow to act could experience ripple effects. “If an employee who works for a company that doesn’t offer the benefits winds up with a $2.3 million bill after having these experiences, that will be a very powerful story and will continue to draw attention to the corporate decisions,” Lamberton said.

Taking a stand could be particularly important for companies that regularly promote specific health ideals, such as wellness, and broader goals of equality and independence as part of their public persona.

“You can’t portray yourself as a brand that supports certain outcomes in society and remain silent on an issue like this. It just doesn’t make sense,” Lamberton said.

By Cheryl Winokur Munk, special for CNBC.com

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