When Dan Shapiro first decided to switch his Seattle company from all-local to remote, it didn’t occur to him he would then become a gatekeeper between clashing worlds.
But increasingly as his Pioneer Square tech firm has hired employees who live around the nation, including in red states like Texas and Oklahoma, the political crackup of the United States has been tossed into his lap.
“For some reason, the two most important people in health care right now are your company CEO and Samuel Alito,” Shapiro told me the other day. “That’s where we are.”
Shapiro runs Glowforge, a 200-employee firm that makes 3D printers. He was reading the news earlier this year when it hit him that the health benefits package he’d pledged to his employees included a suite of things, such as abortion and gender-affirming medical care, that some states now are banning or trying to criminalize.
It meant that MAGA politics wasn’t confined to just MAGA world.
“I promised health benefits to my employees that states like Texas and Oklahoma are making illegal,” Shapiro said. “It was a ‘sit bolt upright’ kind of moment.”
It may be the year 2022, and we may be in a tech revolution that allows workers to beam in from anywhere. But the retrograde political reality is companies now have employees who might have to be “flown to safety,” as Shapiro put it, to get their promised care.
I’m highlighting Shapiro here because he’s speaking out about this. It’s a bizarre trait of America that health insurance is mostly provided by employers. But it means that the political events of the past months, culminating in the news that the U.S. Supreme Court is on the verge of throwing out the constitutional right to abortion, are squarely in the purview of corporate CEOs. Whether they like it or not.
It makes their general silence on this vital health care and women’s rights issue a travesty.
“Corporate America Doesn’t Want to Talk Abortion, but It May Have To,” read a story in The New York Times this past week, about all the ways most corporations are dodging the topic.
Shapiro, to his credit, went public about it early, in mid-April, with a commentary on the Seattle tech site GeekWire: “Why this Seattle startup had to mess with Texas over healthcare.”
“We’ve promised [our employees] equitable and fair healthcare,” he wrote. “We cannot let state borders, posturing politicians, or the cost of an airplane ticket get in the way of that promise.”
He unveiled a plan to pay travel costs so any of his workers, or their family members, could get covered medical treatments that had been banned in their states. He also offered up to $25,000 to cover moving expenses if they have to relocate to get care. The $25,000 benefit is a lifetime maximum.
Some other companies have announced they would also fly their employees out of red states to get reproductive care. Most notably, Amazon said Monday it would cover up to $4,000 in travel costs for abortions if treatment wasn’t available within 100 miles of a worker’s home.
Shapiro invited other corporate leaders to “copy our homework.” Contact him, he said, and he’d share the details of how to set up a benefits scheme to circumnavigate the red-state crackdown.
“I’ve heard from 30 companies that combined represent hundreds of thousands of employees,” he said. “This is a movement that is rising. It’s going to take off.”
Of course there’s a countermovement. It has dawned on conservative lawmakers that if a pill can be mailed to women for abortion services, or the women themselves can drive or fly to a blue state, then it won’t be enough to punish local doctors or clinics. So they’re going after the women directly.
It’s why Louisiana is first out of the gate with a bill that would permit charging women with murder for having an abortion — or even for using emergency contraception.
Shapiro said it’s surreal to be crafting a policy to potentially evacuate his employees from their own states. It’s also classic America that we’ve left it to corporations to patchwork figure this out. Whatever triage they come up with, no matter how well-meaning, leaves out millions of poorer women who may lack jobs or insurance.
“The insurance companies haven’t caught up, the medical system, the policymakers,” Shapiro said. “I could sit here and complain that I’m supposed to be spending my time making 3D laser printers, not looking at out-of-network health travel reimbursement rates. But this is the world we’re now in.”
Incredible how far and fast we’ve fallen. Only a few years ago we were discussing how to reach universal health care. Now it’s how to run patients across state lines.
It’s easy to see how this tragic absurdity will exacerbate the blue/red divide. Companies with liberal health policies will locate only in blue states or favor hiring only blue-state workers. The more Christian companies will cluster in red states. As I suggested about neighbors Idaho and Washington, we are sundering — culturally, legally, medically, financially — into “two different countries claiming the same territory.”
Or: Corporations could loudly object to this reactionary turn. It’s all going to be a colossal waste of their human and financial resources. They could speak the one language politicians are sure to hear, the sound of money. Especially the sound of money leaving.
I hate to close with this, because it goes against what we’re supposed to believe about our allegedly people-powered democracy. But: Maybe only corporations can save us now?
Danny Westneat is an opinion columnist for The Seattle Times
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