‘Best States to Work’ Report Highlights Government Policies Helping and Hurting U.S. Families

Interview with Kaitlyn Henderson, senior research adviser with Oxfam America, conducted by Scott Harris

As Labor Day was celebrated across the U.S. in 2023, union activism was running at a fever pitch in what many are calling “Hot Strike Summer.” Hundreds of thousands of workers, from UPS drivers to Hollywood writers and actors to hotel and healthcare workers have threatened to go out on strike or have walked the picket lines. Over 230 strikes have been recorded so far this year, involving more than 320,000 workers, a dramatic increase from previous years.

Record levels of income and wealth inequality in the U.S., as well as workplace disruption from the COVID pandemic, have emboldened workers fighting for a livable wage, improved benefits and better working conditions. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour, unchanged since 2009 — the longest period ever without an increase.

While the federal government has failed to act to implement policies to address the daily struggles of working families, some state governments have taken action to fill the gap. Oxfam America recently published their annual “Best & Worst States to Work” report, which identifies U.S. states that have the most robust laws to mandate adequate wages, safe conditions, and rights to organize unions.  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kaitlyn Henderson, senior research adviser with Oxfam America’s U.S. domestic policy program, who summarizes the highlights in the report and Oxfam’s recommendations for policy reforms.

KAITLYN HENDERSON: So this index looks at 26 different policies across three big themes. The themes are wages, worker protections, and rights to organize. So we are looking at everything from the minimum wage and the tipped wage to issues of paid leave, flexible scheduling, domestic worker protections, protections for farmworkers. Two questions around organizing: Is this a pro-union state? Are public and private worker, private sector workers allowed to organize and bargain collectively? So we were trying to think of a very holistic approach to what it is for states to have policies that are in support of workers and working families.

SCOTT HARRIS: Who are the winners and losers in your view among the states, the 50 states that you looked at?

KAITLYN HENDERSON: Well, a couple things to note. Number one, this is an index looking at all 50 states plus D.C. And Puerto Rico. So the ranking system is out of 52. Another thing to note is we like to think of this index as a very encouraging race to the top. So there’s not losers so much as states that have an opportunity to do more .

Yes, we really wanna encourage people to do more, but to the question you’re asking, the states at the top of our index this year, these are states that are very consistently in the top five. Number one, we have California. They have so many great policies in support of workers that I’m happy to dive into.Number two is Oregon, and number three this year is the District of Columbia.

On the flip side of the index, those that are lower down the rankings and last this year as the last few years is North Carolina. They come in dead last followed by Mississippi and Georgia. And we tend to see that states that are coastal, West Coast, East Coast, sort of New England tend to perform better and states in the U.S. South tend to very consistently show up at the bottom of our rankings.

SCOTT HARRIS: But as we conclude, please summarize Oxfam’s list of recommended policy reforms at both the state and federal level that would improve the well-being of working families.

KAITLYN HENDERSON: Absolutely. So we’ll go across all three of the themes, unsurprisingly, even at the state level and also at the federal level, we are calling for a raise in the minimum wage and an end of the subminimum tipped wage, which traps way too many people and overwhelmingly women in poverty. So we need to raise the wage. We especially need to do so at the federal level.

But there is no state that has a minimum wage that allows a family of four to afford their basic cost of living. So that’s a big one. One of the biggest expenses of people today and especially families, is childcare. So we’re also calling for investment in childcare from the federal government, but also at the state level. And we see some great examples of how that can be done from states like New Mexico that wrote childcare funding into their constitution only recently.

Certainly going into the worker protection category, paid leave is hugely important. It is about the well-being of people, the well-being of their communities. So we ask the federal government to pass a paid leave law. There are several in front of Congress today, including the Family Act and also for states that have not already done so to also pass paid leave. Minnesota only this year passed a paid family leave policy that allows workers to take up to 20 weeks of paid leave, which is incredible and such a model for other states and the federal government.

And then of course, we really need to protect the right to organize and to form a union and to collectively bargain. And at the federal level that looks like passing the Pro Act or the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which this year has been renamed in honor of a former worker organizer, Richard Trumpka. We see movement happening at the state level.

At the state level, I really wanna give a special shoutout to the state of Michigan that overturned their right to work law this year. And it was the first time state had overturned that law in over 50 years. So we are seeing really exciting progress. There is much to be optimistic about. And while we need to celebrate the wins, we still need to hold policymakers at the federal and the state level accountable and ask for more because working families deserve more.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Kaitlyn Henderson (19:59) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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