The Supreme Court decision that struck down Roe v. Wade also ushered in a new era for the workplace, and for how all of us—yes, in every country—relate to our employers and employees.
Within hours of the decision, a string of major companies announced their intention to provide travel benefits to employees in states that banned abortion, so that those employees would be able to access abortion elsewhere: Companies like DICK’s Sporting Goods, Disney, Comcast, JPMorgan Chase, Lyft and many more. These announcements were enthusiastically greeted and retweeted, both as concretely helpful measures for pregnant (or potentially pregnant) employees, and as signals of corporate principle.
While I can’t diminish the importance of these pledges if they help employees access crucial healthcare (and that’s a big “if”), I worry about what they mean for the future of labor and employment—not just in the U.S., but around the world. Every time an employer steps in to fill a profound breach in public policy, we move closer to a world in which it’s our relationship to an employer, rather than our relationship to our community or our government, that defines our rights as citizens.
The lessons of Covid
We have already seen this dynamic at play over the course of the Covid pandemic, and in the return to the office. Employees who were in remote-friendly jobs had the opportunity to stay home, safe and healthy during the pandemic; employees in intrinsically on-site jobs faced far greater risks and rates of Covid exposure, as well as job and income loss if their on-site jobs were considered non-essential, or if demand simply dried up under pandemic conditions. Since these on-site jobs are disproportionately likely to be done by workers of color and people with lower incomes, that’s who got hit hardest. Most employers are not in the social policy business, and we can’t rely on them as our bulwark against injustice when a crisis hits.
We should be just as wary of relying on employers to serve the personal or family interests of employees who are now being asked to return to the office. While there are certainly some employers who have embraced remote work on principle or as a business advantage, many are adopting hybrid work plans only reluctantly, as a necessity for retaining and attracting talent in a tight labor market. We’re already seeing signs that this flexibility may evaporate as soon as unemployment rates rise, if it leads employers to feel less constrained in demanding on-site attendance. The graciousness of employers in “allowing” remote, hybrid and flexible work is no substitute for government-mandated family-friendly policies like parental leave and medical leave, or for structural investments like on-site childcare.
It’s time to get to work.
For this very reason, it’s crucial that we do return to the office, at least part of the time. A world of all-remote work—particularly a world in which we increasingly depend on our employers to protect our basic human rights—is a world in which our working relationship is primarily oriented towards and dependent on our employer, rather than our fellow employees. There’s a reason labor unions took off during the industrial revolution, and it’s not because that was the first time labor was exploited: It’s because gathering daily in the same place of work provided workers with an opportunity to see one another, band together, and get organized.
I’m not saying we need to go back to the office full-time with the aim of unionizing every workplace and fomenting worker revolution. I’m just noting that the very thing employers worry about—preserving organizational “culture”— is also of profound interest to employees. We need to have full human relationships with one another, and we definitely need ways to connect and communicate outside the corporate Slack or Teams channels.
Meeting up in the office is the easiest way to form these interpersonal connections (not to mention exchanging Signal handles and other secure means of communication). That means we need enough time in the office to not only make our way through the weekly backlog of working meetings, but also, to have the spontaneous and off-the-record conversations that build trust and facilitate the exchange of information about our respective working conditions, compensation and challenges.
And the most important conversation we need have right now is a conversation that is far too crucial and too risky to have entirely online. It’s the conversation about how we’re going to organize in a way that ensures democratic rights not just for privileged employees, but for all citizens.
Here are three immediate, actionable steps that you can take as a social media user, as a manager and as a professional—steps that address the concerns I’ve raised today.
1. Before you celebrate a corporate policy, check their donation history.
Some of the employers and executives who are getting kudos for offering travel benefits have also donated to the Republican causes that made the Supreme Court decision possible. (I’m looking at you, Comcast, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup.) Be sure you look up an organization’s political donation history before celebrating its “rights-friendly” policies.
2. Plan your off-sites in locations with comprehensive healthcare.
Many companies are moving to a remote-first model that relies on periodic off-site gatherings of employees to replace regular office attendance. Friday’s decision is a crucial reminder than any such gatherings must be held in locations that offer comprehensive access to healthcare, including abortion services. Otherwise you are making it unsafe for pregnant people (or even potentially pregnant people) to attend your event, because as this thread usefully reminds us, pregnancy can sometimes lead to life-threatening complications that can only be resolved by abortion.
3. Secure your data, tools and people.
One thing that’s changed in the decades since Roe v. Wade: There is now a wealth of data that can and will be used to surveil citizens and prosecute people seeking or enabling healthcare. (As Kiki Djarin points out, this is a good reason to be careful about offering or seeking abortion help through social media.)
Your business should stop collecting and retaining any data on employees or customers that could be used to track menstrual cycles, pregnancies or other personal health information—and that data includes any consumer patterns from which pregnancy can be inferred. (Just check out this story about how Target figured out a teen’s pregnancy before her dad did.)
You can and should go a step further by encouraging employees to use secure tools like Signal, and mandating security training so people understand the risks of accessing and sharing information online. There are terrific resources out there like the EFF’s privacy tips for people seeking an abortion or providing abortion support, and the Digital Defense Fund’s Digital Security for Abortion & Pregnancy Privacy.
But these resources are much more useful if people know to look for them—which depends on having some fundamental awareness of digital security and privacy. That’s where you and your workplace come in! Get people in the habit of using secure communications now, because we’re only going to be more dependent on these tools in the future. And if you haven’t downloaded Signal yet, please do that right now.
Where I’m giving
Sustaining and renewing abortion rights in the U.S. and beyond is a long fight, so I’m committing long-term resources. We’ve just made monthly pledges to NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, and Women Have Options, a statewide abortion fund in Ohio (where I went to school, and where Friday’s ruling will almost certainly reduce or eliminate abortion access.)
Even before last week’s emboldening ruling, the LGBTQ community has been under increased attack. Thanks to author Robin Stevenson, we discovered Hope in a Box: For $500, we were able to send a box of LGTBQ-inclusive books to a school that has requested these resources. At a moment when it’s easy to feel discouraged, it’s wonderful to do something concrete that has such a big impact on kids who really need to see themselves in these books.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.