Study Ranks Oregon Best State to Work in the Country — and No. 1 for Working Women

Oxfam America

The 2021 report from Oxfam America cites progressive policies and COVID-19 protections .

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Oregon took the top spot in this year’s 2021 Best States To Work Index, published by the global anti-poverty organization Oxfam America. The state ranked fifth in last year’s study. Oregon also ranked first on Oxfam’s first annual Working Women’s Index

The studies graded states on three criteria: wage policies, worker protections and the right to organize. 

Workers’ rights and wages have become matters of more urgent concern as companies compete for a smaller pool of available workers.

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According to Kaitlyn Henderson, senior research advisor at Oxfam, Oregon’s rank jumped between 2020 and 2021 because the state created health and safety standards in response to COVID-19 and strengthened protections for tipped and unemployment benefits for minimum wage workers. 

“The federal government has been stagnant so far protecting workers. For many states, protecting workers has not been a priority,” Henderson says. “Now more than ever we are seeing labor laws being important for on-the-job safety, and Oregon has passed rigorous health standards. Essential workers who can’t do their jobs from home, like grocery store employees, are more important than ever, and they need specific protections.” 

Another reason for the jump: increased enforcement of Oregon’s SB 828, which regulates employers’ ability to schedule workers sporadically. Enacted in 2017, a 2019 study from the University of Oregon found that while the law has been effective in making scheduling more predictable, a significant number of employers were ignoring the law. 

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In 2020, Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries began unannounced site visits and fines aimed at employers skirting the legislation, though the onset of COVID-19 has made these visits more challenging. 

Oregon’s protection of tipped workers and teachers, the majority of whom are women, were big factors in the state’s ranking at the top of the organization’s Working Women Index. Other factors included ORS 109.001, the right-to-breastfeed law the state adopted in 1999. Oxfam also cited the predictable scheduling law as a benefit to working mothers, since it makes it easier to arrange child care.

Oregon also received a perfect score on worker’s right to unionize. Henderson also cited Oregon’s adoption of emergency rules to protect those working in extreme heat, and said Oregon’s labor unions deserved “a great amount of credit” for helping bring about the policies.

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Graham Trainor, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, says workers right to organize, and the power of labor unions and like-minded organizations to influence policy, are ‘absolutey’ reflected in Oregon’s placement. But he compared workers rights legislation to a game of whack-a-mole.

Trainor and Henderson both commentd that time between passage and enactment allows people to find loopholes. Unless new laws keep passing, workers rights will beging sliding backwards. For some workers, esepcially women and people of color, progress has already started to slip. 

“Advocacy work builds on itself. Since 2015 we’ve raised the minimum wage, passed paid both sick leave and the most substantial one time change to discrimination and harassment laws since Title 9, then secured the most progressive paid family and medical leave law to date,” Trainor says. “Yet we know that far too many Oregonians, especially women, women of color and BIPOC workers are left behind in our changing economy. These are the same workers who were gaining the most prior to the pandemic but have lost so much ground.”

He gave Oregon’s 2019 Workplace Farness Act as an example. The law meant employers could not request workers who were victims of discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace sign non-disclosure agreements. However, empyers began requiring emplyees sign NDAs that relating to any ensuing monetary settlement, which according to Trainor, discourages other emplyees from taking similar action.

Still, Trainor was happy to see Oregon’s placement on the top of Oxfam’s list. He cited the modernization of the the Oregon Family Leave Act and HB 2474, which codified job protections for parents when schools or daycares close that in the event of the continual public health emergency, as stadnout progress from Oregon’s last major legislative session.

The national labor shortage is not likely to end any time soon. Even as federal unemployment benefits are curbed, workers’ pandemic fears and lack of child care options mean state and federal labor laws could make all the difference between a humming economy and one that stagnates. 

“We publish this list for the federal government. We hope that they will start to look more like Oregon,” says Henderson. 

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