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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Tech Companies Will Cover Abortion Travel—but Not for All Workers

When the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last month, abortion was soon banned or restricted in several states—but some tech companies pledged to help workers sidestep these limits. Google, Amazon, Lyft, and DoorDash told employees they could claim expenses for out-of-state travel for abortion care. Google went a step further, offering to let employees in affected states permanently relocate. Not included in these generous new benefits: gig workers, temporary workers, and subcontractors, who make up a large portion and sometimes the majority of these companies’ workforces.

Excluding those workers from abortion benefits deepens the divisions within the tech industry’s two-tiered workforce. At large tech companies, temps, vendors, and contractors—dubbed TVCs—often labor alongside permanent employees for less pay, fewer benefits, and weaker job security. They comprise a large and growing share of the tech industry’s workforce.

At Amazon, the hundreds of thousands of drivers who operate delivery vans and freight trucks bearing the company logo work for small third-party contractors, making them ineligible for Amazon’s benefits. And because Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash all classify their drivers as independent contractors, they also remain excluded from employee benefits. A 2019 New York Times report found that Google’s 121,000 temps and contractors outnumbered its 102,000 full-time employees.

Last week, the Alphabet Workers Union, which includes workers at Google and other companies owned by its parent Alphabet, condemned the company’s selective abortion travel policy. “What this fails to address is the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Alphabet temps, vendors and contract workers, who are more likely to be living in states with restricted abortion access, more likely to be workers of color and people who can become pregnant and less likely to have the resources to relocate because Alphabet systematically underpays them,” AWU executive chair Parul Koul, a software engineer at Google, wrote in a statement.

One group of Google subcontractors working at a store that sells the broadband service Google Fiber is fighting to be included in the abortion travel benefit. In March, workers at a pair of Google Fiber stores in Kansas City, Missouri, employed through the staffing firm BDS Solutions, voted to unionize. After Roe fell, Missouri implemented a total abortion ban with no exception for rape or incest. A worker at one of the stores tells WIRED that the union is about to begin negotiating its first contract and plans to push for an abortion travel benefit. Most tech contractors or gig workers don’t have such a sliver of hope. They often face significant barriers to joining a union or winning protected bargaining rights.

Amazon spokesperson Brad Glasser confirmed that third-party contractors were not covered by the company’s medical plans, including travel benefits. DoorDash and Lyft confirmed that their abortion travel benefits are not available to drivers. DoorDash spokesperson Abby Homer said the company is working with policymakers to develop benefits for its drivers that would follow them from company to company. Lyft spokesperson Shadawn Reddick-Smith sent a blog post from business affairs president Kristin Sverchek saying the company has donated $1 million to Planned Parenthood and was partnering with the organization to pilot a “Women’s Transportation Access Program” but did not share details about what that entails. Alphabet spokesperson Courtenay Mencini did not comment on the company’s TVC workers but shared a blog post outlining recent updates to protect user privacy around health care.

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Apple, Meta, Microsoft, and Uber also rely on large pools of TVCs or gig workers and have announced abortion travel benefits for their employees. When asked if nonemployee workers were covered, Microsoft spokesperson Michelle Micor declined to answer; the other three companies did not respond.

Ironically, the workers being shut out of abortion travel benefits are probably more likely to need it than full-time tech employees, given their generally lower compensation. In 2015, the Brookings Institution found that people with a family income below the federal poverty line, who tend to have less access to contraception and family planning education, were 5 times more likely than more affluent people to experience unintended pregnancy. Black and Hispanic people are overrepresented amongst abortion seekers.

People with lower incomes are also less likely to have health insurance that covers abortion. In 2014, the latest year for which the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion policy nonprofit, has data, only 31 percent of people seeking abortion care had any private health insurance at all. Another 35 percent were covered by Medicaid, which excludes most abortion coverage in 34 states that won’t fund it.

Experts say there are many ways tech companies could support TVCs and gig workers in the post-Roe US, should they want to. Shelley Alpern, director of corporate engagement at Rhia Ventures, a social impact investment firm that submits shareholder resolutions pressing companies to support reproductive rights, says those steps include seeding a travel fund that temps and contractors could use, suspending political donations to anti-abortion politicians, and contacting lawmakers to oppose anti-abortion policy. Big companies “are like sleeping giants on this issue,” Alpern says.

Other options for corporations that want to make a difference include donating to local abortion funds in places they do business or have employees, says Liza Fuentes, senior research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute. “That is pretty low-hanging fruit, and it’s desperately needed,” Fuentes says. She says tech companies could work with the National Network of Abortion Funds, which lets donors earmark funds for specific communities, and groups like the Brigid Alliance, which arranges and funds abortion care and travel for people in need.

Some permanent employees inside tech companies have been pressuring their own bosses to take some of those steps to support abortion access. The Washington Post reported last month that workers inside Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have circulated petitions and internal messages calling on their companies to pledge to protect the privacy of users who seek abortions.

In her statement calling on Alphabet to extend abortion travel benefits to TVCs, AWU’s Koul said the company should also end donations to anti-abortion politicians and establish privacy protocols to protect Google users seeking information about abortion access. “History has proven that the Supreme Court’s ruling will not stop abortions, it will only stop safe abortions,” she wrote. “Google can do more to ensure all workers and users have the information and resources necessary to safely access reproductive health services.”

A day after the AWU made its statement public, Google announced its privacy updates, which include the deletion of abortion clinic visits from users’ location history. Software engineer and executive council member Ashok Chandwaney acknowledged the changes but reiterated that the company must go further in protecting user and worker privacy and expand abortion access for all of its workers. “Our organizing will continue,” he wrote.

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