Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Hourly Jobs With Fertility Benefits Offer Some Workers a Path to Parenthood

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Not for the money, but for the benefits.

Lorenz worked 10 hours a week over six months as a cashier at home-improvement retailer Tractor Supply for $16 an hour, for which she received insurance that paid for four rounds of egg retrieval, a procedure that wasn’t covered by her primary health insurance.

“It was a little surreal sometimes, to come off an intense project meeting with executives and head off to Tractor Supply and listen to country music and fold jeans,” she said.

Tractor Supply is part of a swelling share of employers offering fertility benefits, in part to help recruit workers in a hot labor market. And while the trend started years ago as a perk for highly compensated tech staff, a handful of companies now provide the coverage to lower-paid, hourly and even part-time employees—such as cashiers, warehouse workers and baristas.

Apple and Facebook, now known as Meta Platforms, began offering to help female employees pay for freezing their eggs nearly a decade ago. Now, 25% of employers in the U.S. offer in vitro fertilization coverage, up from 20% in 2019, before the pandemic, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association. The companies include Amazon, a de facto wage-and-benefit setter for low-wage workers, Starbucks and Target.

Businesses assess the pros and cons

Employers are weighing the high costs of covering treatments such as IVF, egg freezing and artificial insemination against their need to attract workers to relatively low-wage jobs. Tractor Supply said that starting June 1, its fertility benefits would kick in after employees complete a year of service. When Lorenz worked there, her coverage took effect after 30 days, and she quit shortly after her fourth egg retrieval.

“This is a huge corporation, I don’t necessarily feel guilty, but I probably didn’t deserve $60,000 of benefits for the amount of work I did,” said Lorenz, who lives in Orange County, Calif., and is hoping to have a baby with her frozen eggs some day.

Tractor Supply said that it “is continually benchmarking and assessing value on benefit investments and adjusting as needed to continue providing these and other valuable benefits to our team members.”

In 2021, 97% of employers surveyed said that offering fertility benefits hadn’t resulted in a significant increase in medical plan costs, according to national infertility association Resolve and benefits-advisory firm Mercer.

The employers extending fertility benefits, plus paid parental leave, to lower-income employees are hungry for such workers. The U.S. unemployment rate dipped to a low 3.5% in July, and wages increased more quickly for rank-and-file workers than employees overall, rising 4.8% and 4.4% respectively from a year earlier.

Working for insurance instead of a paycheck

The out-of-pocket cost for one round of IVF runs to an estimated $15,000 to $30,000. Some workers toil for just the fertility benefits, with no additional pay.

Jessica Porta said she rises before dawn to serve coffee three to four days a week at her local Starbucks in Billings, Mont., and hasn’t taken home a paycheck in over a year.

After suffering two miscarriages, the 31-year old was diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve, and health insurance through her husband’s job didn’t cover fertility treatments such as IVF. But Starbucks provides workers up to $40,000 in fertility benefits, as well as health insurance, after five months on the job, working 20 hours a week.

Porta said she took the Starbucks job because she “saw it as an opportunity to get [IVF] done fast. Saving $25,000 to $30,000 would have taken much longer than five months.” All of her pay—at $15.45 an hour—goes to covering the cost of her insurance.

After two rounds of IVF, Porta, who is pregnant and due in November, says she doesn’t mind working for just the insurance. “I remember how thankful I am to have the opportunity to have IVF and have a baby, it doesn’t feel so menial to be working without a paycheck.”

Starbucks said it offers benefits such as family-expansion assistance based on feedback from workers, and because “when we deliver for our partners, they’re better able to deliver” for customers.

Navigating a patchwork insurance system

Workers’ prime employment years, which the Labor Department defines as ages 25 to 54, broadly coincide with the time in life they tend to start families. Infertility affects one in six people across the globe, according to the World Health Organization.

Would-be parents taking part-time jobs solely for the fertility benefits “is an artifact of the patchwork insurance situation right now for fertility treatment,” said Eliza Brown, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Some people travel to different states or countries for more affordable treatment, transfer several embryos during IVF treatment, or forgo certain testing during fertility treatment to save money, she said.

Maria Mendivel, age 35, said that over the past three years she has worked in succession at Starbucks, Amazon and Tractor Supply to get fertility coverage.

She said her stint at each lasted less than a year because her benefits at each company covered up to a certain number of IVF rounds. Mendivel’s insurance at Tractor Supply would have covered another IVF cycle, “but I didn’t have it in me to keep going—it’s been five embryos, three years and no baby.”

Mendivel and her husband, who live in Toledo, Ohio, now plan to become foster parents, and she earns around $80 a day delivering Instacart orders. If it hadn’t been for employer-provided fertility benefits, IVF would have been financially impossible, she said.

“I don’t think I would have did it as many times, even one time, it just seems unreachable,” Mendivel said.

Write to Harriet Torry at harriet.torry@wsj.com

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