When we talk about systemic inequalities in the United States, let’s not forget one of the most intractable: geography.
When we talk about systemic inequalities in the United States, let’s not forget one of the most intractable: State borders draw lines around fundamental rights, conditions and protections for citizens, and they establish very different realities.
When Oxfam published the first edition of Index of the best states to work (BSWI) in 2018, we were surprised to see the wide range of labor laws across the country. At that time, the top and bottom states sat next to each other: Washington, DC was #1 and Virginia was #51. The minimum wage alone was nearly double in DC what it was in Virginia ($13.25 versus $7.25), and protections and organizing rights were just as diverse.
Five editions later, in 2022, the disparities are still there – but they have widened further. Major states continue to make incremental labor law changes to help keep working families afloat and healthy; while the lower states remain stubborn, refusing to take simple measures like raising the minimum wage in the face of historic inflation. (A few states have taken action, with significant new laws, and it has improved the landscape for working families — and pushed them up the index. Virginia has moved from the bottom to 22nd place in 2022.)
The result is a growing gap between states, with the best states becoming stronger and the worst states trapping workers in poverty, with unsafe conditions and without the right to organize freely.
It must be said that the best States improve thanks to a virtuous circle: where workers and advocates are empowered to organize and demand change, state legislatures respond (in the best states); where workers are underpaid and ignored, legislators are less likely to act.
The dire need is for Congress to set federal standards that support working families in every state.: increase the salary, adopt the PRO law, impose paid holidays, etc. Until Congress acts, working families in the worst states will have an unjustly terrible chance of staying afloat and moving forward.
The gaps between the best and worst states are huge
If you live and work in one of the top states, you do better on all three dimensions of the BSWI. You earn significantly better wages (even taking into account the cost of living), you enjoy much stronger protections at work, and you have the right to organize and bargain collectively.
The table captures some of the data points in the upper state (Oregon) versus the lower state (North Carolina).
It’s not just about policies and data points; they are living laws that determine a family’s income, working conditions and union rights.
And the trend is only accelerating
On the one hand, the “good” states have maintained a steady pace of improvement; while “bad” states have refused to take positive action for working families.
- In 2022, 30 states (plus DC and Puerto Rico) have a minimum wage above the federal minimum. Since 2018, most have continued to increase pay as the cost of living has risen. For example, the minimum in DC has gone from $13.25 to $16.10.
- Of the 22 states that did not impose higher federal wages in 2018, 20 states still do not; they haven’t raised the wage floor for 13 years (since the federal wage was raised to $7.25 in 2009). During this time, all living costs rose rapidly. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of food alone has increased by more than a third. That means real wages in those 20 states are significantly lower in 2022 than they were in 2018.
- Oregon, California and Washington passed heat standards that impose protections for outdoor workers. (Two states have established more limited protections: Minnesota has adopted a heat standard for indoor workers, Colorado has a standard for agricultural workers only.)
- Since 2018, several states have adopted paid sick leave; and a few have paid family leave, allowing workers to take paid leave for various family situations (such as starting or expanding a family through birth or adoption, caring for a family with a serious health).
- Nevada passed new legislation preventing private-sector employers from requesting past salary information from their new hires, allowing for greater pay equity.
- Few states downstairs have taken steps to mandate paid leave (illness, maternity, family); to accommodate pregnant or breastfeeding workers; to guard against abuse in planning.
- Many states at the top of the index have consistently scored 100 on this dimension, offering strong protections around the rights to organize and bargain collectively.
- At the same time, four states in the bottom ten score zero on this dimension: North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina; and they did not move.
What can Congress do?
We need federal standards that protect ALL workers, no matter where they live. In short, Congress should:
- Raising wages: The federal minimum wage has not been raised by $7.25 an hour since 2009. Both at the state and federal levels, Oxfam is calling on policy makers to raise wages: abolish tipped wages, put end exclusions from the minimum wage for certain workers and raise the minimum wage. The Wage Increase Act would do all of this at the federal level. At the state level, 30 states have managed to increase their minimum wage, but not a single one has increased it enough to cover basic living expenses for a family.
- Strengthen worker protections: There is a great need for stronger protections for workers at the state and federal levels, including paid family and medical leave, stronger equal pay laws, pregnancy accommodations and protections for domestic workers. . There are several bills that Congress can pass to establish federal standards for paid leave, including the FAMILY Act, the Healthy Families Act and the Building an Economy for Families Act. The Pregnant Workers Equity Act would prohibit discrimination for “qualified employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions” and would require reasonable accommodation. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights extends pay and leave rights to domestic workers while imposing health and safety precautions, including language around fair and fixed hours.
- Protect organization rights: The federal government must protect the rights of workers to build power collectively. At the state level, the prevalence of “right to work” laws demonstrates the systematic approach to undermining workers’ power; the federal government has a crucial piece of legislation to pass: Organizational Rights Protection Act (“PRO”).