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opinion

Protesters demonstrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 25.Gemunu Amarasinghe/The Associated Press

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

From a small office building in a Dallas suburb, a virtually unknown corporate voice is singing a contrarian tune to the chorus of big companies making themselves heard in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which pushes the determination of the legality of abortions back to individual states.

Rather than announce it will pay for employees’ travel expenses to states where abortions are legal, as dozens of firms have done since the landmark ruling last week, tiny Southlake, Tex.-based Buffer Insurance has instead publicly promised to expand support for employees who want to give birth or adopt.

“Buffer will pay the medical costs for our employees who birth babies and provide time off for employees to have maternal and paternal leave,” the company said in a Facebook post titled How Buffer Responds to Roe v. Wade. The company also said it would pay the costs associated with adopting a baby.

Publicity stunt? Political posturing? A bit of each? Perhaps, but the pro-life statement by the small health insurer in the heart of an anti-abortion state is no more brand-burnishing than the pro-choice announcements from companies such as Citigroup, Netflix, Apple, J.P. Morgan, Disney and others.

Patagonia, the Ventura, Calif.-based outdoor apparel maker known for its activist culture, has gone even further than most. In a LinkedIn post, the company said it would offer “training and bail for those who peacefully protest for reproductive justice.”

To be sure, the struggle U.S. companies face in navigating the post-Roe landscape reflects the growing expectation among workers that their employers engage in political issues that have little or nothing to do with the products or services they offer – everything from the social justice movement to U.S. immigration policies to America’s posture on the war in Ukraine. And with the abortion issue, executive leadership teams are once again managing the highly charged dynamics at the intersection where commerce and politics meet.

That expectation is quantifiable and generational. A recent study by Perceptyx, an employee analytics firm, said workers under 45 are more than three times as likely to want their companies to take stands on political issues than their older colleagues.

Just ask Bob Chapek, the chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company. Spurred by pressure from a group of LBGTQ+ employees, he is embroiled in a high-profile dispute with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over the state’s new parental rights bill. Nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its opponents, the legislation bans the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity to schoolchildren from kindergarten to Grade 3.

Mr. Chapek has vowed to repeal the law. In retaliation, Mr. DeSantis has pulled the plug on a 50-year-old agreement that gave Disney virtual self-rule and low taxes on its Disney World property near Orlando.

Human resources experts suggest that while the rush by many companies to announce new or expanded abortion policies is clearly meant to address the rising tide of partisan employee activism, there is a more practical motive.

Emily Dickens, the chief of staff for the Society for Human Resources Management, said in a statement that employers are offering abortion benefits as a way to “enhance their ability to compete for talent” in a job market where an estimated 11 million positions remain unfilled.

“But,” Ms. Dickens added, “how these policies interact with state laws is unclear, and employers should beware of the legal risks involved.”

As of this week, 13 states are expected to activate “trigger” bans tied to the Roe decision within 30 days of the ruling. At least eight states banned abortion the day of the court’s decision. Several others with anti-abortion laws blocked by the courts or dormant laws are expected to activate them. In 20 states and the District of Columbia, abortion is legal and expected to remain so.

In Texas, where the 2021 “Heartbeat Law” outlawed any abortion after a fetal heartbeat was detected, lawmakers have already sent shots across the bows of companies that intend to pay for employees to go outside the state to get abortions. Companies such as Citigroup and Lyft have been warned they will face “swift and decisive” action if they implement such policies, including the criminal prosecution of executives and barring companies from doing business in Texas.

Some companies have already softened their policy language to account for the legal risks. Meta, for example, now says it will pay for abortion travel “to the extent permitted by law.”

Abortion-rights advocates have raised privacy concerns, suggesting that digital information generated by those seeking abortions – including online searches, e-mail messages and location tracking – could be used by law enforcement agencies in anti-abortion states to find violators. Companies could also be compelled to disclose personal employee data if violations of state laws were suspected.

Often lost in the flurry of corporate announcements is the socioeconomic reality of the issue: Most women seeking abortions in the U.S. are poor, according to a 2014 study by the Guttmacher Institute, a leading voice in abortion research. Roughly 75 per cent of abortion patients had incomes below the federal poverty level of US$15,730 for a family of two or were considered low-income.

These women are unlikely to have access to corporate health plans covering the procedure or subsidizing travel to have it performed, a sobering truth for companies seeking credit for their actions regardless of their stand on the issue.

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