Which Are the Best US States to Work In?

A report by Oxfam reveals the best, and the worst, US states to work in, and the best and worst states for female employees

Traffic on highway 101 in San Francisco, California, US. California is ranked by Oxfam as being the best US state to work in, according to the 2023 edition of its Best States to Work Index.
August 31, 2023 | 04:00 AM

Bloomberg Línea — Oxfam’s Best States to Work Index (BSWI), which tracks how US states protect, support, and pay workers by analyzing 26 policies across all 50 states, this year identifies the top state as California, while the lowest ranking state is North Carolina.

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California tops the ranking with a score of 86.01, while North Carolina ranks 52nd with a total score of 7.57.

The index, now in its fifth year, identifies how US states stepped into gaps left by federal inaction to support low-wage workers and working families. Because the federal government fails to provide US workers with universal access to paid leave, rights to organize and bargain collectively, and higher wages, many workers are stuck in cyclical patterns of poverty.

The impact of these policies, or lack thereof, does not fall equally on all communities; in fact, federal inaction is exacerbating inequality in the United States, especially on lines of gender, race, and class, according to the report.

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The index covers all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and the territory of Puerto Rico. All data is based on policies and laws in effect by July 1, 2023.

The ranking system is designed to inspire a race to the top for all states; it is an advocacy tool to help policymakers identify the spaces where there is room for improvement at the state level. There is no state with a perfect score; even those states at the very top of the ranking have room for improvement.

How the states are scored

The states are ranked on a scale of 0–100 points, and the difference between those at the bottom of the index and at the top are stark. These policies can determine whether workers are safe at work, whether they can afford food for their family, or whether they have a voice in the workplace.

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At the top of the index, as has been the case each year, the leading five states are coastal, reflecting both the West Coast and the Northeast. At the top of the index this year is California with a cumulative score of 86.01, a score boosted not only by the state’s strong unemployment benefits and minimum wages, but by its status as one of the few states with a heat standard for outdoor workers.

Oregon comes in second, with a cumulative score of 85.52; in third place is the District of Columbia with 81.63; fourth is New York with 78.24; and in fifth place is Washington with 77.83. The top five states in our index feature some of the strongest minimum wages in the country, provide paid leave, and ensure child labor protections; the top four states received perfect scores in the rights to organize dimension; and three of the five (California, Oregon, and Washington) have heat standards for outdoor workers.

The top 10

RankingStateOverall scoreWages scoreWorker protections scoreRight to organize score
1California86.0177.5285.71100.00
2Oregon85.5270.0592.86100.00
3District of Columbia81.6386.3763.10100.00
4New York78.2470.6071.43100.00
5Washington77.8382.0871.4380.00
6Massachusetts75.5573.2567.8690.00
7Connecticut73.7875.0967.8690.00
8Colorado72.1370.9660.7195.00
9New Jersey71.7369.9560.7180.00
10Illinois69.4061.0060.7190.00

What’s new in 2023?

For the most part, state rankings have stayed within a few positions of rankings from last year. This year has, however, been a huge one for policies in the Midwest, with states like Minnesota making progress in one legislative session, and Michigan demonstrating the possibility of new legislatures.

Some of the local wins to celebrate include:

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  • Michigan overturned its “right-to-work” law, the first state to overturn such a law in decades.
  • Illinois and Minnesota passed paid leave policies covering both family leave and sick leave— in Minnesota’s case offering up to 20 weeks of paid leave for family leave. Maine also passed paid leave in 2023, though the bill was passed after the index’s cut-off date of July 1, 2023.
  • Colorado passed new legislation protecting collective bargaining for workers.

“Although much remains to be done to protect and support all workers and working families, victories must be celebrated,” the report states. “These new policies are the direct result of decades of advocacy by workers, organizers, and community members who successfully pushed policies across the finish line with the help of locally elected officials.”

A few states have made some important policy changes in the last few years, and have risen in the rankings accordingly. Virginia, for example, ranked last in the BSWI in 2018 and 2019, moved up slightly in 2020 and then found itself in the top half of the index in 2021, with a rank of 23, rising to 22 in 2022, due to hugely productive legislative sessions in the state, where the minimum wage increased, a domestic workers bill of rights passed, protections against sexual harassment increased, and the state expanded accommodations for pregnant workers.

Which are the best US states for working women?

Although the BSWI has always placed an emphasis on the experience of women in the workplace and has included many policies that directly or disproportionately impact women (e.g., equal pay or paid breaks for pumping), it also focuses on specific policies to provide a separate index to cover women at work.

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These data points appear in the overall BSWI, but by extracting these specific policies, Oxfam aims to emphasize which states proactively seek to support women workers, and the differences between states in the Best States for Working Women (BSWW) index are significant. Where a woman lives and works defines whether she will be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace and whether she can provide for a family.

Both the BSWI and the BSWW index place a strong emphasis on paid leave, a policy that especially benefits women.

“Women, and especially mothers, hold disproportionate care responsibilities. As a result of this reality, the ability to take paid sick leave to care for oneself or a sick family member, a responsibility typically held by women in their families) helps women by not forcing them to choose between a paycheck and illness,” the report points out.

Similarly, paid family leave is a crucial policy that helps pregnant workers safely give birth and have the opportunity to rest and recover without losing income.

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Notably, Black mothers are disproportionately heads of households or family breadwinners, meaning the positive impact of paid leave has an uneven benefit across genders and races, according to the report.

While paid leave is a policy that disproportionately benefits women, providing paid leave to everyone also helps address care discrepancies across genders, according to the report, Oxfam states.

The top 10 states for working women

RankingStateOverall score
1Oregon87.39
2California82.96
3New York75.44
4Illinois74.03
5Washington70.00
6Connecticut68.08
7Massachusetts68.83
8New Jersey67.37
9Nevada65.48
10Minnesota65.43

Interestingly, in the index of the best states for working women, Puerto Rico ranks in 11th place. And, as in the general index, North Carolina ranks bottom.

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Impossible to live on the minimum wage

One of the report’s revelations is the inadequacy of the minimum wage in the US for sustaining a livelihood.

The federal minimum wage in the United States has not changed in 14 years, the longest period the minimum wage has remained unchanged since the policy was created under President Roosevelt.

“Minimum wages are a decidedly bipartisan issue; most people agree that work should be paid fairly,” the report states. “As a reflection of this reality, 30 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have a minimum wage higher than the federal minimum, and several of those states—including Florida—have a higher minimum wage as a result of a ballot initiative. Voters overwhelmingly agree that higher minimum wages are a good idea.”

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According to the report, “raising the minimum wage, and ending subminimum wages such as tipped wages, would have a disproportionately positive impact on workers of color, especially women of color”.

In March 2022, Oxfam released The Crisis of Low Wages, a report that demonstrated how workers earning less than $15 an hour in 2022 were overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color. While 26% of white workers earn less than $15 per hour, the number jumps to 46% of Latinx workers and to 47% of Black workers. Even worse, when adding gender, a full 50% of working women of color earn less than $15 an hour. These workers are overwhelmingly adults, and the majority are parents.

However, no state’s minimum wage covers even half the cost of living for a family, the BSWI reveals.

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The states that come closest are the District of Columbia, where the nation’s highest minimum wage of $17 covers 38.7% of a family’s expenses; Washington, where the minimum wage ($15.74) covers 37.6%; and Connecticut, where the minimum wage of $15.74 covers 37.4%.

In conclusion, the BSWI advises that stronger policies on wages, worker protections, and rights to organize are essential to helping workers support themselves and their families. Because women, and particularly women of color, are overrepresented in low-wage jobs without essential workplace protections like paid leave, stronger mandates can also reduce racial, gender, and economic inequality, while better labor policies correlate not only to higher median household income and GDP per capita, but also to lower rates of poverty, infant mortality, and food insecurity.

“No state earned a perfect score, and even among those states ranking well, there is room for improvement,” the report states.

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How can policymakers use the BSWI?

Oxfam’s goal with the BSWI is to inspire a race to the top among policymakers at the state and federal levels, and describes the index as “a celebration of what can happen when policies are created with the well-being of people in mind”.

“Workers and working families can thrive when they are valued. This index seeks to shine a light on where policymakers are responding to and enacting policies put forward by workers and workers’ advocates, and where policymakers can do more,” Oxfam states, and its aim that the BSWI can inspire this race to the top in three key ways.

Firstly, the index allows a state to evaluate its labor policies, and it provides guidance as to the types of legislation the state government may enact to improve its treatment of workers.

Secondly, the research can guide policymakers and advocates toward the states where the most improvement is required. Overall, states found at the bottom of the BSWI need greater efforts to advance labor legislation.

The index also underlines the stark differences in conditions faced by workers and working families based only on geography, while the federal government has the power to raise the bar at the national level to make certain that all workers are paid a robust wage, are protected at work, and are ensured rights to organize.

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