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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Apple Won’t Let Staff Work Remotely to Escape Texas Abortion Limits

Rebecca was getting ready to start her work day at Apple this June when she heard that the US Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade. The decision would trigger laws banning or restricting abortion in 13 states, including Texas, where she lived. Gutted by the news, the Austin-based corporate employee debated skipping work, but pressed ahead.

As the day unfolded, Rebecca waited for Apple’s leaders to acknowledge the impact of the court’s decision on its workforce, particularly those like her living in states that were poised to outlaw abortion. Restrictions on abortion not only limit women’s reproductive choices but also can endanger the lives of anyone who needs emergency medical treatment while pregnant. She hoped the company would also publicly condemn the Supreme Court’s decision. All she got was a mass email reminding employees that their health plan covered out-of-state travel for medical care.

For weeks afterward, Rebecca heard nothing further from Apple management—until employees started calling for answers. But when managers in Texas held “listening sessions” about abortion concerns, they were at times worryingly evasive, she and other attendees told WIRED, and said company policy forbids workers—even those fearful of anti-abortion laws—from switching to remote work or transferring to an office in another state. (Rebecca asked that her real name be withheld because she fears losing her job.)

Apple is one of several large Silicon Valley companies that have expanded in or migrated to Texas over the past few years, putting down roots on very different political terrain than that in California. Now the company and its generally progressive-leaning workforce are reckoning with the spread of tighter restrictions and outright bans on abortion.

In 2021, Texas legislators passed a law known as SB8 that effectively outlawed abortions after six weeks by encouraging residents to sue anyone who helped a person access the procedure. At the time, most Apple employees were working remotely. But by the time Roe fell, further restricting abortion access in Texas, Apple was in the middle of a contentious return-to-office campaign. Meanwhile, construction of a $1 billion campus in northwest Austin, which the company has said may eventually host 15,000 workers, continued apace. Now employees were hearing that anyone based out of the company’s Texas offices who did not want to live under the state’s laws had to choose between their reproductive rights and their job. Those unable or unwilling to leave faced a potential minefield of health care decisions.

Many people in the US faced similar or worse hurdles after Roe was overturned: The lowest-income workers experience the highest rates of unintended pregnancies, and many lack health insurance. Lots of companies in tech and other sectors have said little about the court's decision. But for some Apple employees attracted by the company’s previous outspoken support for progressive social issues such as gay and transgender rights, its silence on the issue stung.

“A lot of people join Apple because Apple tries to task itself with doing better,” Rebecca says. “The reaction, or lack of reaction, was a huge slap in the face.” Some Texas employees felt scared and adrift, unsure whether they could transfer out of the state or how reliably the travel policy would protect them. Some hesitated to even ask managers about abortion access, fearing retaliation from bosses who might support restricting access to such care.In one Apple division, some senior managers in Texas agreed to host listening sessions for employees to air concerns. They varied in size from one-on-one meetings up to group sessions with dozens of employees, according to Rebecca and two other attendees who asked to remain anonymous and allowed WIRED to review their notes. “I think there were enough rumblings within the organization that they had to react at some point,” one employee says. “Obviously it would have been better if it was proactive.”

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Apple spokesperson Rachel Wolf Tulley did not respond to questions for this story and referred to an earlier statement saying that the company supports employees’ rights to make their own decisions about their reproductive health.

Managers were clear on one point: Employees could not work remotely or switch their job to another Apple office simply because they disliked a particular state’s anti-abortion laws. Attendees say this was presented as a companywide policy: Any employees who wished to relocate to another Apple campus would have to apply for a new job within the company, although managers did offer to help employees find new roles. Now that Apple was pushing workers to return to the office, one manager said, individual teams had less power to grant remote work exemptions than before the pandemic.

Employees also used listening sessions to question how exactly the medical travel policy would protect their privacy and help them access abortion care when they needed it. Managers said leaves were handled by a third-party company and that an individual’s managers would know only that they were out sick or on medical leave.

But while that assuaged some privacy concerns, Rebecca says it remains unclear how much the travel policy would help in a true medical crisis. “We’re hours from anything,” she says. “The logistics of getting out of Texas if you have a maternal emergency are really hard.” She also wondered if any health care plan employees who did not support access to abortion could get them in trouble.

In listening sessions, managers sometimes frustrated employees by playing down their concerns. Another employee asked if Apple was prepared to respond if the situation for women in Texas got even worse. Some Republican lawmakers, seemingly emboldened by Roe’s defeat, were already opposing birth control and advancing plans to punish people who traveled outside the state for an abortion.

But a manager deflected the suggestion that Texas would go any further, attendees said, saying that the state wouldn’t be so “dumb” as to enact extreme policies that drove companies like Apple to leave the state. One attendee found the idea that Apple would pull out of Texas incredulous, given its lack of action thus far. “As if a literal bounty isn’t extreme enough,” they say.

During one session, a manager championed the virtues of Austin, a blue oasis that votes Democrat in the center of a red Republican desert. “That might be great if you're going out to dinner and not wanting to see Fox News on the TV,” says one attendee. “But when you're talking about health care, safety, and life and death issues, that's just really not applicable.”

The passive approach employees say they encountered fit with Apple’s previous stance on abortion. At an all-hands meeting in September 2021, a month after SB8 went into effect, employees asked CEO Tim Cook what the company was doing to protect its workers. According to The New York Times, Cook said that the company was “looking into whether it could aid the legal fight” and pointed to the out-of-state medical travel coverage.

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When WIRED asked Apple’s communication department last December whether the company was contributing to any legal opposition to SB8, it did not respond. While company leaders have told employees they are “monitoring,” “listening,” and “looking into” ways to do more, the company appears to have taken little concrete action, leaving some workers scared or angry, or both.

Apple is not the only tech company that has disappointed employees concerned about abortion restrictions. “Many women feel unsupported and isolated in this male-dominated field,” says Shea Cuthbertson, president-elect of Austin Women in Technology, a networking and fundraising organization. She says that anti-abortion laws can contribute to the industry’s long-standing lack of diversity, by adding to the burdens of working in tech. “Strict legislation impacting a large portion of our population will negatively affect companies that are actively trying to hire a more diverse population.”

Some tech workers are already voting with their feet. “We are seeing candidates ask more and more questions about company values and employee support policies,” such as health care, family leave, and remote work options, Cuthbertson says. “If someone feels like a company would not support them, they will choose to work elsewhere.”

Without the right support for reproductive rights, even a coveted position at a prestigious company can be unattractive. One attendee, disappointed by what they heard in one of Apple's listening sessions and unwilling to live in Texas, started looking for a new job.

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