There is growing inequality among U.S. states when it comes to worker-friendly policies and laws, according to a new report released ahead of Labor Day.
But there’s good news, too: Some states that rank in the middle of Oxfam’s annual index of the best and worst states for workers are making progress.
In 2018, the global charity rolled out the index as a way to track the impact of a general lack of federal laws addressing the needs of low-wage workers and working families, it has said. Since then, states in the Northeast and West Coast have consistently ranked at the top of the index, and Southern states have ranked at the bottom.
The index covers all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, and, most recently, Puerto Rico.
California took the top spot this year, with a score of 86.01 out of 100, because of its strong unemployment benefits and minimum wages and for being one of the only states with a heat standard for outdoor workers, the report said. The rest of the top five, in order, were Oregon; Washington, D.C.; New York; and Washington.
The state that came in last was North Carolina, with a score of 7.57, followed by Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. All these states have a minimum wage of $7.25 — the federal minimum wage — and right-to-work laws. None of these states mandates paid leave, which the report’s author said benefits women the most, because they are usually the caregivers of their families and communities.
Stark differences across states
Oxfam senior research adviser Kaitlyn Henderson, the author of the 2023 report, said in an interview with MarketWatch that she’s excited by improvements for workers in states in the middle of the rankings, including Minnesota and Michigan.
“Minnesota had the most productive legislative session in the country since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal,” including the passage of a paid-leave law for both family and sick leave, Henderson said. “They’re weaving a social safety net there that’s really inspiring, and something the federal government should pay attention to.”
Another win for workers was Michigan repealing its right-to-work law in March, Henderson said, marking the first time since the 1960s that a state’s right-to-work law has been overturned. Worker advocates oppose right-to-work laws because they don’t require employees to join and financially support unions as a condition of employment, therefore making it harder for employees to form unions and collectively bargain. Twenty-six states currently have these laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In the report, Henderson also lamented some setbacks in worker protections, including child-labor laws. For example, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican, signed legislation in March eliminating requirements that the state verify the age of children under 16 and require them to obtain a work certificate before they are hired for a job. Her spokesperson said at the time that the governor believes it’s important to protect children, but the permit requirement created an arbitrary burden for parents.
The differences between the states at the top of the index and those at the bottom are “stark,” the report said. The research also found a correlation between the rankings and measures of poverty, food insecurity, infant mortality, median household income and more.
“Where someone lives is really defining whether they can work in a safe environment, afford their basic cost of living and have the ability to collectively bargain or organize,” Henderson said, adding that there is “a patchwork of realities” for workers across the U.S.
Oxfam based its rankings on more than two dozen policies across wages, worker protections and rights to organize in each state. All rankings were based on laws and policies in effect as of July 1.
“Our goal is to inspire a race to the top,” Henderson said. “We want to encourage states to do more for working families.”
The best states for working women
The Oxfam report included an index for the best states for working women, which mostly corresponded with the highest-ranked states for workers overall. In the index for women, the top five states in order were Oregon, California, New York, Illinois and Washington. The bottom five had North Carolina coming in last, followed by Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas.
The index for women, Henderson said, put a stronger emphasis on tipped wages because women disproportionately make up the tipped workforce. Another key factor in the rankings was the ability for public-school workers to organize in a state, because public-school teachers overwhelmingly are women, she said. Of the five states ranked lowest for women, only Mississippi gives workers the right to organize.
“Ultimately, this is an index of policies that don’t exist or are insufficient at the federal level,” Henderson said. “We need the federal government to step up into these gaps.”