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2021 Best States to Work Index: Oregon and New York top the list, North Carolina and Georgia rank last

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Report offers new Best States for Working Women Index, and finds a widening gap between how states treat, protect and pay workers

BOSTON, MA- Ahead of Labor Day, anti-poverty organization Oxfam America has released a new 2021 report and interactive map ranking all 50 states as well as DC and Puerto Rico based on their policies to protect and support workers and their families. The report includes a new Best States for Working Women Index, ranking states based on gender-specific protections including equal pay and pregnancy accommodations.

“Workers in the US face dramatically different conditions based simply on where they live,” said Gina Cummings, Vice President of Advocacy, Alliances and Policy for Oxfam America. “As the federal government has failed for decades to pass updates in labor laws, it’s fallen to the states to determine wages, conditions, and rights.”

Oxfam’s Best States to Work Index (BSWI) provides a measure of three policy areas: wage policies, worker protections, and rights to organize. The top five states in the index are located on the West and East Coasts, with Oregon ranked first, followed by New York, Massachusetts, California and the District of Columbia. At the bottom of the index, all states fall in the South; North Carolina is last, followed by Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina.

While the same five states occupy the top spots as in 2020, Oregon’s jump from fifth to first is due to an incremental raise in the minimum wage ($12 to $12.75 an hour) and the new inclusion of unemployment payments in this year’s index. In Oregon, average unemployment payments for someone working a full-time minimum wage job covers 21 percent of the cost of living ($312 a week), more than most states offer.

This year’s bottom five states are the same as in 2020, having done nothing to improve policies for workers since then. All states in the bottom five have minimum wages set at the federal minimum of $7.25, none mandates paid leave, and none except South Carolina provides pregnancy accommodations or protection against sexual harassment.

Virginia, however, which was at the bottom of the index in 2018 and 2019, made a huge leap in 2021 to the top half of the index, landing at 23. According to the report, the enormous improvement is a direct result of communities and workers organizing to encourage Virginia’s legislature and Governor Ralph Northam to provide protections for domestic workers, expand accommodations for pregnant workers, bolster protections against sexual harassment, and increase its minimum wage. Virginia was also the only state to pass an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) for workplace safety during COVID-19.

“Virginia offers a vitally important example of how much power lies in organized workers to influence state lawmakers and elected officials to invest in the wellbeing and dignity of workers in their state,” says Kaitlyn Henderson, Senior Researcher at Oxfam America. “Nearly all workers fare better with more robust wages, rights to organize, and protections in the workplace, whether that be in a field, a plant, an office, or a private home.”

This year’s new Best States for Working Women Index comes as the impacts of COVID-19 on the US economy continue to be felt by women who are leaving the workplace at higher rates, often due to disproportionate care burdens. The index analyzes the ratio of tipped wage to cost of living (for one earner and two dependents); worker protections, including paid leave (medical and family), equal pay, and fixed and fair scheduling; and the right to organize for public school teachers, 76 percent of whom are women.

“The differences in working conditions for women in each state are stark,” said Henderson. “Essentially, where a woman lives and works determines whether she will be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, and whether or not she can provide for a family.”

While the top states in the Best States for Working Women Index largely correlate to the top states in the general index, Hawaii and Puerto Rico rank higher when it comes to gender-based policies. Puerto Rico, for example, has one of the oldest paid family leave provisions in the United States, and has long protected rights to organize, including for public school teachers. Hawaii not only has a more robust tipped wage policy than much of the country, it is also the only state in the United States to put forth a “Feminist Economic Recovery Plan” as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ranking as a “Best State to Work” means it’s more likely that working families and the economy are thriving in that state. Oxfam maintains that states should do more to create a positive and supportive landscape for workers and their families.

Oxfam recommends the following policies be enacted with urgency at the state level: 1) Increase the minimum wage to align better with basic cost of living, and empower local governments to raise minimum wages. 2) Improve protections for workers, including both paid sick and paid family leave. 3) Extend protections to domestic workers and farmworkers. 4) Repeal laws that undermine workers’ freedom to bargain collectively. 5) Preserve collective bargaining for public workers.

As our economy inches toward recovery, Oxfam also recommends the federal government step up and raise the bar for all workers in the US.

Federal policy recommendations include: 1) Increase the federal minimum wage. 2) Pass the PRO Act or similar legislation that protects rights to organize. 3) Pass a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program. 4) Pass an Essential Workers Bill of Rights that would enhance protections for frontline workers. 5) OSHA must issue an Emergency Temporary Standard around COVID-19 protections for all workers at risk of exposure (expanding beyond the healthcare standard that has been issued).

“The only way to avoid an ever-changing patchwork of laws, which have deepened inequality on geographic lines, and left millions of working families struggling to stay afloat, is for Congress and the federal government to take vital steps to improve compensation and conditions for all workers across the country,” said Cummings.

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