Across the U.S., the level of protection provided to working women varies.
Anti-poverty organization Oxfam America has released its 2021 report on the best and worst states to work in America. The report includes an index of the best states for working women which analyzes wages, worker protections including paid leave, equal pay and pregnancy accommodations, and the right to organize.
Oregon ranks first, followed by California and New York. While the same five states occupy the top spots as in 2020, Oregon’s jump from fifth to first is due to an incremental rise 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% of the cost of living ($312 a week), more than most states offer.
Southern states fall at the bottom of the list: North Carolina is last with Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi finishing just ahead.* This year’s bottom five states are also the same as in 2020, having done nothing to improve policies for workers during the pandemic. 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 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.”
As the report argues, where a woman lives and works defines whether she will be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace and whether or not she can provide for a family. A higher ranking means it’s more likely that working families and the economy are thriving in that state. Still, Oxfam America maintains that all states should do more to create a positive and supportive landscape for workers and their families.
“Workers in the U.S. face dramatically different conditions based simply on where they live,” said Vice President of Advocacy, Alliances, and Policy Gina Cummings. “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 America recommends the following policies be enacted with urgency at the state level:
- Increasing the minimum wage to align better with the basic cost of living, and empowering local governments to raise minimum wages.
- Improving protections for workers, including both paid sick and paid family leave.
- Extending protections to domestic workers and farm workers.
- Repealing laws that undermine workers’ freedom to bargain collectively.
- Preserving collective bargaining for public workers.
“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. Oxfam America recommends the federal government step up and raise the bar for working women by:
- Increasing the federal minimum wage.
- Passing the PRO Act or similar legislation that protects rights to organize.
- Passing a comprehensive paid family and medical leave program.
- Passing an Essential Workers Bill of Rights that would enhance protections for frontline workers.
- 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).