Using Employment Laws to Rank the Best States for Workers

Most people simply find a job where they live and don’t consider the labor employment laws in their states, but many states actually have vastly different rules and regulations when it comes to employment. Workers’ rights differ greatly from state to state, with some having pretty strict laws and others having rules that are relatively lax and not protective of employees. Therefore, workers should be aware of their states’ guidelines and any employment law attorney has to know the laws set for their respective states to be able to represent workers properly.

Minimum wage by U.S. state, Washington, D.C., and territory versus the federal rate of $7.25 per hour as of July 1, 2019: Higher, Same, Lower, No state minimum wage law Source: Wikipedia

To provide some historical background, the Industrial Revolution is believed to be the first major push to transform labor laws as workers moved into production facilities. The first wage law was set by President Roosevelt in 1938 in the Fair Labor Standards Act and mandated that employers nationwide must pay their employees at least 25 cents/hour, which was likely a result of the numerous employee strikes seen across the country throughout that decade.

Other major laws that are still in use today were enacted, too. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 specified that all workplaces must provide “safe and healthful working conditions.” Additional labor laws include the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which first governed the usage of programs such as H-1B, H-1B1, H-1C, H2A; the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which regulates retirement and health plans in private industries; and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which requires employers with over 50 workers to provide job protection and unpaid leave for necessary medical and family reasons.

There are also other legal matters to consider when it comes to the workplace, including probation period employment law. Aside from the State of Montana where probationary periods (AKA training or onboarding periods) are mandatory, all states have the option to implement these if they choose, which normally includes a 30-, 60-, or 90- day period in which the employer monitors and assesses a new employee as well as possibly holds off on providing benefits (e.g. healthcare and vacation) to protect the company. Employment law comes into play if the employee claims any violations of the employment contract or the probationary terms and conditions. Discrimination and harassment lawsuits have also come out of probationary period issues.

For decades, it has seemed that many people face very low paying jobs despite working long hours and receiving few benefits. Labor laws have been changing throughout the years to try to find a balance between employers’ and workers’ rights, but there is still much work to do. Some states have implemented overtime regulations, others have followed the federal overtime guidelines, and the rest do not have protections in place. Unemployment insurance also varies by state and is oftentimes a hassle to deal with, so many people are advocating for better policies and procedures on that issue, too.

Although there hasn’t been much recent employment law news due to other more pressing issues in the world today, state and federal employment law have been changing behind the scenes, albeit much slower than many workers would like. This includes rules about overtime eligibility for thousands of workers as well as rules regarding background checks, drug testing, sick leave, and parental leave. That said, many people looking for an employment law job are in luck because more and more people are beginning to push for fairer labor laws throughout the country.

From wages to paid leave and workplace conditions, federal and state governments are always promising to better the lives of overworked and undervalued workers, but some states are doing much better than others overall. Global anti-poverty movement Oxfam America released a recent report detailing the best and worst states to work in based on a “full range” of employment labor policies including right to work laws, wages, and labor agreements. Analyzing adherence to the employment law handbook for each state based on 2019 laws, the organization determined which states take care of their workers well and which could do better.

Coming in first place was Washington, D.C., where it is illegal to pay women or minorities less than someone else for the same job, workplaces must have designated rooms for nursing, paid family and sick leave is mandatory, and employers must notify employees of scheduling changes well in advance. Of all of the states, D.C. is also ranked as #1 in the highest median household income, adding to the reasons why it tops Oxfam’s list.

California came in second due to its solid protections against sexual harassment and its regulations on maternity matters, scheduling, and paid sick leave. California raised its minimum wage to $12 in 2019 and also doesn’t make it difficult to join labor unions. Washington ended up #3, partially because it has one of the highest GDP per capita rates. The state lacks solid maternity laws and scheduling flexibility but is still much “better” than other states, according to the study. Massachusetts, Maine, and Oregon closely followed Washington.

Unfortunately for Virginians, their state came in last place in Oxfam’s study for the second year in a row. The huge gap between the $7.25/hour minimum wage and the minimum amount needed to support a family of 4 ($27.83/hour) is the largest nationwide and makes it hard to afford living there. Virginia does have protections regarding equal pay across race and gender, but slacks off greatly with most other metrics. Virginia doesn’t protect pregnant employees and also does not have laws mandating accommodations for nursing mothers. The state also does not provide paid sick leave, nor does it provide paid family leave, meaning workers who need to take time off to care for a family member do not have protections. Employers also do not have to notify workers of scheduling changes in advance, and sexual harassment protections are almost non-existent. Virginia is also a right-to-work state, meaning it is hard for unions to organize and succeed in gaining better workplace conditions.

Mississippi and Alabama are also deep red on Oxfam’s chart, with the Carolinas and Georgia closely behind. Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation and has one of the “worst” education systems and healthcare in the country. Although public school teachers are now allowed to start unions and engage in wage negotiations, other worker protections are almost non-existent. The State of Alabama does require that employers keep salary information confidential, which theoretically lessens the gender/race pay gap; however, like Mississippi, Alabama lacks in pretty much all other areas of employee protection.

As mentioned, if you think you have been wronged at your place of work, consulting with an employment law attorney is a good idea. Employment law attorneys are well versed in the employment law handbook for their states as well as federal employment law and will be able to determine whether or not you have a legitimate legal claim.

There is still work that needs to be done to improve workplace conditions and give workers more sufficient rights, seeing as Oxfam noted there is not even one state in the U.S. that has a minimum wage that would cover even half of the needed money to support a family of 4, but many states are pushing to change this. Ultimately, Oxfam reported that this problem could be alleviated if minimum wages were raised nationwide, protections for workers were strengthened, right-to-work laws were overturned, and the current view of unions was replaced with a more positive one that leads to favorable and fair outcomes for employers and workers.