by Jarred Schenke via Bisnow with reporting by Olivia Lueckemeyer
In the wake of the revelation that the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, large companies considering where to place a new office or lab could soon be forced to choose between states where abortion is legal and where it isn’t.
In a leaked draft of the opinion, first published by Politico and confirmed Tuesday, the nation’s highest court appears set to rule that the Constitution doesn’t grant women the right to terminate their pregnancies, giving the power to legalize or ban abortions back to individual states. Many states, including a large portion of the Sun Belt region that has experienced an incredible economic and population expansion in recent years, are controlled by Republicans who have pushed anti-abortion legislation.
Companies have become increasingly comfortable taking public stands about diversity, equity, inclusion and healthcare issues in recent years, but businesses looking to align with public opinion about abortion will struggle — roughly 58% of Americans, and 62% of women, support keeping abortion legal in all or most cases, with another 54% saying the Supreme Court should uphold Roe, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll on abortion attitudes released May 3.
And recent history indicates site selection decisions haven’t been particularly swayed by hot-button issues like abortion or gender identity. Few corporations take any stand, and those that have spoken out in opposition of new conservative laws have not changed their footprints in response — Microsoft is building big in Georgia, Facebook is expanding in Texas — and corporate relocations have continued unabated.
Some think this time may be different.
“This will have implications. Politics is now fundamental to corporate site selection,” said John Boyd, the principal of The Boyd Co., a national corporate site selection consultant. “Rest assured that states will weaponize this. They will use this as part of their economic development pitch.”
Thirteen states have trigger laws in effect that, in the event of an overturn, would automatically restrict or ban abortions, including Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas. Ten or more others could quickly institute their own bans or restrictions following an official ruling, NBC reported, citing data from two abortion advocacy groups.
The seismic decision comes as corporate America is drastically changing where and how it allows employees to work. Numerous Fortune 500 and big tech firms have been opening locations in Sun Belt hubs like Phoenix, Tampa, Austin, Atlanta and Nashville, spurred on by the pandemic’s effect on migration and remote work.
In the war for labor, companies have been focused on how to attract and retain young talent, which has meant flexible working environments, cutting-edge offices and public stances on political and social issues. Under this environment, the game of economic development — where states and localities compete to lure companies and jobs into their borders — abortion access and rights could become a factor in corporate site selection, experts say.
“Our country, which is more politicized than I have ever seen it in my entire life, has the potential to take [economic development] to a whole new level. There’s talking and then there’s action. But this is pretty big,” said a prominent national office tenant broker who asked to remain anonymous, because she wasn’t authorized to speak about a polarizing topic.
“Companies are already struggling to get employees to want to come back to work. And you mix in everything with regards to Roe v. Wade, are they really going to want to be in a state that is not for it?”
Boyd said some states already are positioning themselves as reproductive rights havens for companies that would reconsider locations in states where abortion could be banned.
“We’re getting data requests from companies planning expansions in Texas now considering Nevada,” he said. “The state tends to be more liberal with social issues.”
Ernie Jarvis, the founder and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based tenant-focused brokerage firm Jarvis Commercial Real Estate, said the ruling “won’t have any impact at all” on corporate relocation decisions.
“I don’t think this very volatile, emotional issue should be a catalyst for economic development decisions,” Jarvis said. “There are other proper or appropriate ways for expressing or providing perspective for this issue. I would even say that there should be no connection between economic development conversations … and the abortion issue. But I do think that all people should voice their perspective on this very important issue.”
Many large companies have been pursuing policies advancing environmental, social and governance principles in recent years, and in the aftermath of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor police killings in 2020, many companies have become more vocal on social issues and more dedicated to diversity and inclusion.
And as the pandemic has taken an outsize toll on working women and mothers, companies have devoted more resources and attention to family planning. Some big companies already are offering abortion support benefits, including Yelp, Amazon, Citigroup and Salesforce, including paying for employees’ transportation to states where abortion is legal.
There was some immediate outcry from business leaders after the draft opinion leaked. Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook parent Meta Platforms, wrote on Facebook that “this is a scary day for women all across our country. If the leaked draft opinion becomes the law of the land, one of our most fundamental rights will be taken away.”
Microsoft founder Bill Gates tweeted “a reversal of Roe v. Wade would set us back 50 years and disproportionately impact the most vulnerable women in society. I support a woman’s right to make their own decisions about their health care.”
But by and large, American corporate leaders have been silent on the issue thus far, including commercial real estate companies and executives. CREW Network — the largest organization for women in commercial real estate in the country — declined to issue a statement on the opinion.
“CREW Network is a neutral, bi-partisan, non-lobbying organization and it is our policy not to comment on issues that are or could be political in nature. The same goes for our board who are representing CREW during their board tenures,” CREW spokesperson Laura Lewis said in a statement to Bisnow.
When Texas passed a state law in September banning abortions from six weeks after conception, effectively outlawing the procedure altogether, there was initial outcry — more than 80 companies denounced the law, including Patagonia, Netflix and Lyft, in a coalition called “Don’t Ban Equality In Texas,” Reuters reported.
Since, the response from the business community has been relatively muted, and Texas’ ability to attract business, especially from out of state, has been seemingly unchanged after the anti-abortion legislation. Texas in 2021 broke records for commercial activity with 73 corporate relocations last year, nearly half coming from California, according to Adriana Cruz, the state’s executive director of economic development & tourism.
“Unfortunately, Ed is going to pass. He doesn’t feel comfortable commenting on anything political or controversial,” a YTexas spokesperson wrote in an email.
Jennifer Koontz, who oversees office leasing for prominent Atlanta landlord Pope & Land, said Georgia could lose some of its economic development allure if it bans abortion rights, especially with Fortune 500 and tech companies. The issue is the war for talent, Koontz said, and having policies in place that will convince employees to stay put.
“Companies do not want to move their employees to such an environment and we will see a reduction in large companies and tech companies looking to relocate or expand in Georgia should Georgia look to make more restrictive abortion regulations,” she wrote in an email.
Gov. Brian Kemp issued a statement in response to the leaked opinion Tuesday, vowing that “Georgians should rest assured that I will continue to fight for the strongest pro-life law in the country.”
In a text message to Bisnow, a Kemp spokesperson added that the governor “has never wavered on ensuring Georgia is a welcoming place for companies of all kinds to start, relocate, or grow. His pro-business mindset and approach have led to record-breaking job creation and investments. These stances are not in combat with one another like some will try and depict, and it is clear that companies know Georgia is a great place to be.”
Georgia, like Texas, has experience with backlash to recently enacted conservative policies, notably the package of new election rules Kemp signed into law a year ago, which added provisions seen as voter suppression, including an ID requirement for mail-in votes, restricting the number of voting drop boxes and banning the handing out of food and beverages on voting lines by non-poll workers.
In response, Major League Baseball moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. Executives at major Atlanta companies like Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines and The Home Depot all released statements condemning the laws, but that had its own backlash: Republican state legislators threatened to pull a $35M fuel tax break from Delta.
More recently, Florida’s state legislature voted last month to strip The Walt Disney Co. of its special self-governing district around its theme parks in Orlando after the entertainment giant came out against the new law that curtails what can be taught about gender and sexual identity in elementary schools.
Similar retributory tactics toward corporations that support abortion rights have been discussed in Texas, where a state lawmaker threatened in March to introduce legislation banning local governments from doing businesses with companies that pay for out-of-state abortions, The New York Times reported.
“What I am seeing that is shocking to me is just the level of hostility toward the business community,” former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told Bisnow Tuesday.
Reed, a Democrat, was well-regarded in local economic development circles for working with then Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, to spur the region’s competitiveness. Over the past decade, Metro Atlanta landed major investments from companies headquartered in states with Democratic governors, like Microsoft, Google, Anthem and BlackRock.
“The process around business recruitment and business retention is an absolutely full-on competitive process. It’s as competitive as it gets, and it’s increasingly going to be so as the economy changes permanently post-Covid,” Reed said. “I watched the way that the business community was handled when there was a debate around voting restrictions, and I imagine they’ll be treated similarly in a debate around abortion.”
But since the voting rights laws were passed, the state has continued to land major new corporate facilities, like a $5B plant from electric vehicle maker Rivian and vaccine maker Moderna’s first office outside of Massachusetts. It remains to be seen if full abortion bans will be a nonstarter for businesses looking to expand or relocate, but experts said they will potentially be a huge point of contention starting this summer.
“When choosing to relocate to a city, companies are looking for that same mentality from the business and political leaders in that city,” said Koontz, an Atlanta-based office leasing broker. “When a state severely restricts a woman’s ability to have a safe abortion, while at the same time as a country we have given women limited access to affordable birth control, healthcare and child care, it speaks volumes about the care that the leaders have for their most vulnerable constituents.”