The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the workforce of the United States, with more than 1 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits for the first time last week — reaching that threshold for the 22nd time in 23 weeks, according to the Department of Labor.
While the U.S. government has sent out relief payments and allowed small businesses with fewer than 500 employees to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program, it was up to states to decide how they could further help citizens weather the harsh economic blow.
Oxfam America, a nonprofit affiliated with the larger Oxfam global confederacy, just released a report ranking the best U.S. states to work in during the coronavirus pandemic, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Three criteria were used in determining the rankings: health care (20%), worker protection (45%) and unemployment support (35%), and each of these had its own subsets.
“In terms of the political landscape, I think it kind of depends on which dimension, sort of which theme, but there does seem to be a correlation between which states are doing very well and which states had governors that were pretty proactive in responding to (COVID-19),” Kaitlyn Henderson, a senior researcher at the advocacy group, told TODAY by phone.
Oxfam tracked 27 policies within each state, and these policies were assigned a numeric score. Henderson added that some were binary — either the state had the policy or did not — but in the case of COVID-19 policies, the scaling system required “nuanced gradation.”
States earned points for having policies in place — or sometimes half points for policies that had been passed but had yet to be enacted — and then were totaled up and converted into a scale from 0 to 100. Higher scores indicated the state was a better place to work. The study is a snapshot into states’ response to COVID-19, as it looks at policies and laws in effect between Feb. 15 to July 1.
So, which state is the best to work in?
Washington tops the list
The Evergreen State, which earned an overall score of 76.41, topped the index ranking. Henderson said that the state implemented a moratorium on evictions and utilities being shut off, expanded telehealth services as well as Medicaid access and has a mandated paid sick or family leave. And during the pandemic, it has requirements for personal protective equipment on the job.
Compare that to Alabama — ranked last at No. 52 with an overall score of 17.76 — which has put forth none of these measures.
New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York also ranked in the top states. At the other end of the spectrum were Mississippi, Wyoming, Georgia, Missouri and Alabama.
California scores the highest for worker protection
California has historically supported worker protection rights and consequently scored a 91.7 in the category. Henderson said the state had nearly every worker protection policy they were tracking, some of which include state personal protective equipment requirements, pregnancy accommodations and protection against forced return to work, according to the index component breakdown.
For context, Georgia placed last with a 12.5, a score it earned for having very few coronavirus-specific policies, no paid leave and personal protective equipment requirements, among others.
Puerto Rico ranks No. 21, plus other states surprise
“Puerto Rico is one of the most indebted governments in the United States and yet they were very proactive in trying to support workers given the resources that they did have,” Henderson said. “They did better than the majority of other states in the country.”
Despite a string of natural disasters beginning in 2017 with Hurricane Maria and a 40% poverty rate that surpasses all other states, Puerto Rico managed to pass laws that aided working families.
But unemployment support throughout the nation varies wildly. Weekly unemployment benefits total $190 in Puerto Rico, while Massachusetts shells out $823 in unemployment benefits. The federal CARES Act, which gave an extra $600 in unemployment insurance per week, lapsed in July, making people even more reliant upon state protections.
Other surprises include Illinois' top finish in health care, a category it typically is not known for. New Mexico and Arkansas tied for second in this category, which also surprised researchers.
The index reveals regional differences
The index reveals a correlation suggesting the Northeast scored better than any other region, and the South consistently ranked the lowest.
However, Henderson called the Midwest and West a “mixed bag.” Although No. 1 Washington is right next to Idaho, the Gem State ranked No. 43 overall. No. 3-ranked California is just one state away from Utah, which ranked 45th.
This phenomenon was especially evident when looking at state policies connected to worker protection programs. Henderson noted that Washington, D.C., has a $15 minimum wage while Virginia holds the designation for having the lowest federal minimum wage at $9 an hour.
Every state can do better
Henderson was quick to point out that even though Washington topped the list, it did not surpass a score of 80, meaning every state can improve in some regard.
Even though Oxfam America’s index stopped in July, Henderson said they have seen states continue to rise to the occasion with new policies. Kentucky ranks 20th overall but 35th in worker protection, and recently passed numerous worker protection policies. Missouri sits at No. 51 overall, and after July 1, voted to expand Medicaid.
“I would just say that COVID-19 doesn't seem to be going anywhere as it continues to sort of shatter our economy,” she said. “We really need states and federal governments to step up and provide support for working families, documented and undocumented, during this time.”
The Best States to Work in During COVID-19
District of Columbia