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Tensions Rise At Bethesda As Employees Pressure Company On Abortion Measures

·5 min read
Some astronauts look out into space.
Some astronauts look out into space.

In the wake of Roe v. Wade being struck down last week, many employees at Skyrim maker Bethesda Game Studios and its parent company ZeniMax Media have grown increasingly frustrated by what they see as their employer’s unwillingness to clearly support employees’ access to reproductive healthcare. This is an especially pressing issue for the many Starfield and Redfall developers who are based out of states like Texas that have strict anti-abortion legislation on the books. These tensions have steadily increased as heated debates have taken place in company Slack channels and management communications have failed to directly address employees’ specific concerns and demands.

While some employees are putting pressure on management to unambiguously commit to things like relocation support for employees in heavily impacted states, unsurprisingly, some at the company also support the court’s decision, contributing to internal tensions that have at times blown over into Slack. One Bethesda employee caused significant controversy in the work Slack when he posted an eight paragraph rant against abortion. “I’m dismayed over the consistent crying out for the ‘right’ to murder one’s own kin,” he wrote. “Human rights aren’t being violated in overturning Roe vs. Wade, they’re being restored for those who cannot speak for themselves.” The message included eleven quotes from the Bible. Kotaku was able to obtain screenshots of this post from the company-wide Slack channel. A Bethesda director eventually removed the post and locked the thread, and asked employees to keep politics and religion out of the “water cooler” channel.

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The incident took place during a tense period when many women at the company were already feeling unsupported by what they saw as the Fallout publisher’s reluctance to take a clear, principled stance on reproductive rights. The matter hits particularly close to home for many employees given that ZeniMax Media has a significant presence in Texas. Bethesda Austin and Arkane Austin–where the vampire shooter Redfall is being developed–are based out of the state capital, and id Software is located in a north Dallas suburb. Employees who work out of Texas will be subject to additional “trigger laws” this summer, which will ban all abortions from the moment of fertilization.

Microsoft, which acquired Bethesda last year, had already announced that it would provide travel expense assistance to employees who wish to get an abortion. However, a former ZeniMax employee who worked at the company after the acquisition told Kotaku that Microsoft and ZeniMax handled benefits completely separately, and therefore, those Microsoft policies don’t apply to staff at ZeniMax. “When it became clear that Microsoft was not absorbing us into their umbrella, a lot of people quit,” they said.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision was only officially released last week, employees have been bracing for it, and taking action around it, for some time. Sensing the impact the decision could have on staffers in Texas and elsewhere, members of a women’s employee resource group at Bethesda sent a letter to ZeniMax leadership after the Supreme Court opinion draft indicating that Roe v. Wade would be overturned first leaked to the public seven weeks before.

“As reproductive rights have come under full attack in the U.S., the lack of response from ZeniMax leadership has been deafening. At the time of this writing, six calendar days have passed since the intent to overturn Roe vs. Wade was leaked to the public,” the email said. The email pointed out that the company had previously made internal efforts to support employees during Black Lives Matter, pride month in 2021, and reached out internally during the invasion of Ukraine. “As more ZeniMax employees have their rights threatened, as more of us demand to know if our employer will stand with us, as competitors come out in support of their own workers, the company’s silence remains inexcusable and contrary to the company’s stated values.”

Almost two months after the group had asked for recognition, Bethesda’s official Twitter account finally posted on Friday:

However, many employees were disappointed at how the statement was phrased. “Lifestyle” is a word that many queer people find delegitimizing, as it suggests that a person’s gender identity or sexuality is merely a matter of choice. Multiple queer employees ZeniMax studios expressed their frustration that their employer had framed their struggles as a personal choice, prompting ZeniMax COO Jamie Leder to send an apology email about the word choice the very same day. (Kotaku was able to obtain a copy of his emails.) “I’d like to apologize for any offense caused by the earlier communication and to reassure you that we will continue to protect our employee options and access to critical healthcare as we continue forward,” the email said.

In spite of Leder’s comments intended to “reassure” employees about the company’s stance on reproductive healthcare, employees remain frustrated by what they see as an unwillingness to be clear and specific in its commitments. The women’s employee resource group had previously called on ZeniMax to codify contraceptive access via the company’s health plans, ensure non-discrimination against pregnant employees, negotiate relocation for employees in affected states such as Texas, and accommodate staff according to their local state laws. Three of the four requests were not addressed by the email.

An earlier, seperate email sent by Leder indicated that the company was trying to ”have ongoing discussions with our US healthcare provider about enhancing our benefits for those who may have to travel for medical services”, but did not elaborate on specific provisions for affected employees. Kotaku reached out to ask what specific steps the company would take to guarantee reproductive healthcare, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

According to a current employee at Bethesda, most of the staff are supportive of abortion rights. However, some are dissatisfied as that support and concern for marginalized employees and how they will be affected by the Court’s decision doesn’t seem to be reflected by Bethesda and ZeniMax management. “We waited with bated breath on Friday for the studios to issue a statement as other studios beat us to the [punch] by several hours,” said the source.