Google workers battle company over ‘life and death’ abortion policies


(WASHINGTON) — Immediately after the Supreme Court released a ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, in June, a slew of major U.S. companies, like Meta and JPMorgan Chase, announced that they would cover travel costs for employees who seek legal abortions outside their home state.

Google went a step further. Having already expanded its abortion coverage to include such travel, the company told employees it would allow them to apply to relocate without their providing a reason why.

More recently, after receiving questions from federal lawmakers, the company last month began rolling out a product update that will set default results on Google Maps and local locations for the search query “abortion clinics near me” to only include institutions that perform abortions.

The change will exclude from default results institutions that do not provide the operation, such as pregnancy centers that often attempt to dissuade a woman from seeking an abortion.

Users who choose to manually expand the results beyond those displayed, however, will be able to see institutions that do not provide abortions, a Google spokesperson said.

In addition, Google Maps and local search results will include labels showing whether an institution does or might not provide an abortion, a Google spokesperson said.

Still, outspoken employees at Google say the company hasn’t gone far enough in its response to the overturning of Roe — both on product performance and employee treatment.

The Alphabet Workers Union, or AWU, an advocacy group made up of more than 1,000 employees, has called on Google to strengthen its approach to abortion-related issues or risk an escalation in employee pressure. The AWU functions as a “minority union,” which means it pressures the company through worker organizing but does not formally represent workers in collective bargaining.

The confrontation between workers and management at one of the world’s largest tech companies sits at the convergence of several hot button issues: abortion access, content moderation online and the growing militancy of employees amid a surge of labor organizing nationwide.

“With this new labor movement, workers feel that it’s their due to have a say in what’s going on,” Nelson Lichtenstein, the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told ABC News.

“Workers can come together and make demands on their company on any issue — it doesn’t have to be a wage question or bread and butter,” he added.

Google should extend abortion-related health benefits to contract workers, whom AWU estimates make up roughly half of company staff, the group says.

Moreover, AWU has called on Google to remove pregnancy centers entirely from search results that appear after a query such as “abortion clinic near me,” rather than merely setting the default search results in Google Maps and local locations to exclude such groups. Under the current policy, the app and site display pregnancy centers in an expanded set of search returns.

Alejandra Beatty, a technical program manager who has worked at Alphabet for six years and serves as the Southwest chapter lead with the AWU, applauded the steps that the company has taken on abortion-related issues since the Dobbs decision but said the company still could do more to protect users and employees.

“We’re excited to see some progress,” she told ABC News. “But we recognize that there is still so much more to do.”

A Google spokesperson said that the recent update prioritizing and labeling abortion clinics on Google Maps and in local search results is part of a wider effort to improve search results when a user is seeking a specific service, such as a particular COVID vaccine brand or electric vehicle charging facility.

“We’re now rolling out an update that makes it easier for people to find places that offer the services they’ve searched for, or broaden their results to see more options,” a company spokesperson said.

“We get confirmation that places provide a particular service in a number of ways, including regularly calling businesses directly and working with authoritative data sources. We followed our standard testing and evaluation process to confirm that these updates are more helpful for people,” the spokesperson added.

Google did not respond to a request for comment on the demand from AWU that it extend abortion-related health coverage to contract workers.

Beatty, the Alphabet employee and member of the ALU, said that the group’s call for the removal of pregnancy centers from search results seeking abortion clinics is a matter of keeping harmful disinformation off of the platform.

“We think it is important search results do not mislead users, so while the additional tagging with services is certainly more useful, it’s still letting the fake clinic be in the list,” she said.

“A good analogy would be how much disinformation spread during the outbreak of Covid-19,” she added. “If websites had started to spring up offering counseling to those seeking vaccinations, they would’ve been immediately removed.”

Google retains a duty to provide accurate search results for the high-stakes pursuit of an abortion, said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

“Google has become the go-to place for information related to life and death issues, and as a result Google has more than just a responsibility but a duty to ensure that people are getting the right information about abortion services every time across all Google products,” she told ABC News.

Donovan’s prescription for the company appeared to align with Google’s shift toward default results that prioritize institutions that provide abortions.

“It’s very important that if someone is searching for an abortion, the top results should be about obtaining those services first and foremost,” she said.

Beatty, the Google employee, said the AWU will escalate its pressure on Google if the company does not provide contract workers with abortion-related health benefits and remove pregnancy centers from search results; though the group does not yet have specific plans.

“As more and more states pass incredibly restrictive laws, like Tennessee and Texas have done, we know we must take action,” she said.

The AWU sent a petition in mid-August signed by hundreds of employees calling on Google to extend abortion-related health care benefits, including reimbursement for travel costs, to contract employees.

As of late last month, the company hadn’t responded, Beatty said. “It’s not that unusual,” she added. “There’s a fair number of petitions happening these days.”

The AWU will continue to advocate on issues related not only to working conditions but to the performance of Google products, she said.

“As stewards of being able to share information in an equitable and democratic way, it is our job to make sure that continues,” she said.

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