Ahead of Labor Day, Oxfam America released its annual Best States to Work Index, a robust database and interactive map that measures policies supporting working families in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Arizona comes in at No. 41. Last year, Arizona was ranked No. 42. The report also ranked Arizona No. 20 for its policies to protect and support workers and their families. Last year, Arizona ranked No. 22.

This year’s index comes at a moment when workers face daunting challenges at work and in their communities: historic levels of inflation eroding actual wages, an ongoing pandemic, landmark Supreme Court decisions around fundamental rights, suppression of organizing efforts, and worries about the economy and potential unemployment. 

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“This is a perilous time for millions of working families in the US, who are struggling every day just to make ends meet,” said Oxfam researcher Dr. Kaitlyn Henderson. “As some states have stepped up to protect and support working families, others have refused to act, leaving workers with poverty wages, dangerous conditions, and no rights to organize or act collectively. This is about the reality of life in our country, and the urgent need for federal action.” 

The “best” state in the Index is Oregon, followed by California, Washington, the District of Columbia and New York. The “worst” five states are North Carolina (at the bottom), Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Texas. 

Since 2018, the Best States to Work Index has tracked policies in three areas: wages, worker protections, and rights to organize. This year, Oxfam added a data point that reflects the extraordinary challenges workers face in a changing climate, tracking which states have implemented a heat safety standard for outdoor workers (just three: Oregon, California, and Washington). As millions of workers toil in extreme heat, it’s vital to mandate simple protections such as shade, water, and rest breaks. While the federal government has announced its intention to establish a national heat standard, it could take about eight years to do so. In the meantime, roughly 400 people have died from heat exposure on the job in the last decade, which is likely an underestimate. 

“The federal government has failed America’s workers, refusing for decades to pass updates in labor laws–as a result it has fallen to the states to improve wages, working conditions, and rights,” said Henderson. “Fortunately, there is important work happening at the state level that deserves celebration; and it’s vital to recognize that these policies are the direct result of workers who have organized and demanded change for years.”

Since the 2021 Index, activists have won improvements in several states, including: 

Louisiana passed pregnancy accommodations for private sector workers, protecting workers who are pregnant from losing their jobs or being asked to do overly strenuous tasks.

Connecticut and Maryland passed paid family leave, allowing workers to take paid time off for a variety of family situations (such as starting or expanding a family via birth or adoption, caring for family with serious health condition). 

New Mexico passed paid sick leave, protecting workers from losing their jobs and guaranteeing financial support when they take time off to recover from an illness or care for a loved one who falls ill.  

Nevada passed new legislation stopping private sector employers from requesting past salary information from their new hires, allowing for greater pay equity.  

Together with the Index, Oxfam also released the second edition of the Best States for Working Women, which ranks states based on gender-specific protections (such as equal pay and pregnancy accommodations). In this ranking, Oregon is at the top, followed by California, New York, Washington, and Connecticut. The worst states are North Carolina, followed by Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. The working women’s index is especially important in a year that saw both the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court, and the failure to pass the Build Back Better Agenda, which would have invested billions of federal dollars in childcare. 

“It’s no surprise, but it is painful, that many of the worst states for working women are those that lept at the chance to limit or deny women’s access to abortion once Roe was overturned,” said Henderson. “The worst states for working women do not mandate any kind of paid leave (including maternity), allow below poverty wages, and do not mandate proper accommodations for pregnant or breastfeeding workers. Without access to these protections, workers who become pregnant will have to choose between their jobs and their health. So while lawmakers in these states will limit a woman’s reproductive rights, they will not make workplaces safe once she conceives or even after she’s given birth. The hypocrisy is undeniable.”

One of the states that perform better in the women’s index than in the regular index is Hawaii (#10 in the women’s vs #19 in the regular); it is the only state that created a feminist economic recovery plan with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While the Index ranks states based only on labor policies, it’s increasingly clear that doing well on these data points means states do well on other measures of well-being for residents. The 2022 report offers correlations with three important indicators: poverty levels, infant mortality, and food insecurity. Working families–and the economy—thrive when workers are guaranteed better wages, protections, and rights.

Oxfam recommends the following policies be enacted with urgency: 

Raise Wages: The federal minimum wage has not been raised from $7.25 an hour since 2009. Both at the state and the federal levels, Oxfam calls on policymakers to increase wages: abolish tipped wages, end minimum wage exclusions of certain workers, and lift the minimum wage. The Raise the Wage Act would accomplish all this at the federal level. At the state level, 30 states have succeeded in raising their minimum wage, but not one single state raised it enough to cover basic costs of living for a family. 

Strengthen Worker Protections: There is a great need for stronger worker protections 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 Congress can pass to establish federal paid leave standards, including the FAMILY Act, the Healthy Families Act, and the Building an Economy for Families Act. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would prohibit discrimination for “qualified employees affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” and require reasonable accommodations. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights extends pay and leave rights to domestic workers while mandating health and safety precautions, including language around fair and fixed scheduling.  

Protect Rights to Organize: 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 worker power; the federal government has one crucial piece of legislation to pass: The Protecting Rights to Organize (‘PRO’) Act.