SLC could start reimbursing workers for travel expenses for abortions abroad

Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s plan also calls for city employees to get up to $500 towards a range of products and services, including ski passes, student loans and gym memberships.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City City Hall in 2022. Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s 2024 budget includes a program that would reimburse city employees for a portion of expenses, including those incurred when traveling out of state for abortions or other expenses incurred medical procedures.

Starting next year, Salt Lake City could begin paying compensation for abortions and other forms of medical care to its employees traveling out of state.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s 2024 budget includes a proposal to create “lifestyle savings accounts,” a pot of money that city workers can use to pay for an extensive list of products and services, from ski passes and student loans to gym memberships and medical travel .

“We really developed this policy based on the needs of our own employees,” Mendenhall said in an interview, “and to ensure they can cater for all of their family’s individual needs.”

The fund would not cover medical procedures themselves, the mayor said, but would relate to travel expenses incurred to access medical care. Mendenhall’s plan would provide employees with up to $500 to cover eligible expenses.

When asked specifically whether the money would cover travel expenses for employees seeking out-of-state abortion services, the mayor said it would “reimburse any travel expenses for health care and medical purposes.”

Mendenhall said employees could use the fund to pay for travel to places that treat rare forms of cancer, to renowned medical centers like the Mayo Clinic or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, or — if they relocated to the city for work – ask your previous doctor to stop the current treatment.

“These are real scenarios,” she said, “that this account could help reimburse travel expenses related to these health care needs.”

Beware of Capitol Hill?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Capitol in February 2023. Conservative state lawmakers have previously rejected the forward-thinking policies of Salt Lake City’s progressive leaders.

Mendenhall’s avoidance of the word “abortion” comes amid decades of tension between Salt Lake City and the Legislature. City Hall officials have long seen progressive politics in Utah’s blue-dominated capital being crushed by a red-dominated Capitol Hill.

Representatives for Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and State Senate Speaker Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said they had not heard of Mendenhall’s proposal and had not had an opportunity to consider it.

Public funding of abortion is illegal in Utah except in certain cases, including cases of rape and incest.

Mendenhall said the introduction of the city program — about a year after U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade had overturned that the landmark ruling that had protected constitutional abortion rights nationwide for nearly 50 years — was merely a fluke.

In Utah, a trigger bill that would ban abortion with limited exceptions in the Beehive State was temporarily blocked days after the Supreme Court ruled that abortion laws should be left to the states. Lawmakers expanded that law earlier this year to ban abortion clinics. The new measure was also put on hold.

It is now up to the state Supreme Court to determine whether the law conflicts with the Utah Constitution. Meanwhile, abortion in Utah remains legal for up to 18 weeks, with some exceptions after that limit.

In a statement, Kathryn Boyd, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, hailed the city’s proposal as an “ultra-flexible benefit” that gives employees and their families access to necessary health care.

“Everyone wants peace of mind that they can take care of their family members no matter what, and Salt Lake City is responding to that need,” she said. “We hope this new benefit resonates with other communities.”

The program would keep SLC competitive

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a January 2023 speech that the proposed reimbursement program will help the city remain competitive as an employer.

According to city officials, Salt Lake City is likely the first public entity in the state to consider offering a lifestyle savings account to its employees.

An employee advisory board informed the administration that it wanted reimbursements for childcare, the mayor said. However, since many city employees have no children, the human resources department proposed a comprehensive program to cover part of the expenses.

Mendenhall said programs like the one she proposed would help keep the city competitive as an employer. She said Utah’s capital competes more with the private sector for workers than with other governments.

The obligation to pay compensation to those who have to travel elsewhere to have an abortion is not entirely new to the Beehive State.

This year, Michelle Hyncik, president of the newly formed Utah Royals of the National Women’s Soccer League, said the club has always had a policy of allowing women across the organization to be reimbursed when “specific medical treatment” is not available will be conducted in Utah.

“From our perspective,” said team co-owner Ryan Smith, “it was important across all of our organizations that this medical benefit was available.”

Council President Darin Mano said Salt Lake City wants to be the best place to work in the state and provide benefits that improve the lives of its workers.

“It’s important that employees are given the tools they need,” he said, “to meet life’s challenges.”

The program still needs City Council approval next month to be included in the final budget. Mano said he expects the council to embrace the benefit unless there is strong public opposition to the proposal.

If approved, employees could apply for refunds starting in January.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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