The coronavirus pandemic has revealed how vulnerable American workers are like few crises before. Millions of workers around the country have lost their jobs in the ensuing recession. Others have faced life-threatening hazards as “essential” personnel, or had to give up their livelihoods due to a lack of available child care.
The help available to workers as they navigate these challenges varies greatly from one community to the next. A new report from Oxfam America, a nonprofit focused on poverty in the U.S., shows some states offer a far more robust safety net than others, through unemployment benefits, health care coverage and basic workplace protections like paid leave requirements.
The authors of the report, entitled ”Best States To Work In America During COVID-19,” determined that Washington state has the strongest protections during the pandemic. That’s due to policies like mandated paid sick days and family leave, an expansion of Medicaid health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, and broad eligibility for unemployment insurance.
Washington scored 76.41 on Oxfam’s scale of 100. It was followed by New Jersey (72.17), California (72.03) and Massachusetts (71.66) at the top of the list.
The state with the worst safety net during the COVID-19 pandemic was Alabama (17.76), the authors found. The state has no paid leave requirement, still has not expanded Medicaid, and didn’t implement a moratorium on utility shutoffs. Alabama was also slow to adopt a mask requirement to protect essential workers in industries like groceries and retail.
At the bottom of the rankings, Missouri (22.08) and Georgia (23.08) were just above Alabama. The authors said those three states all lacked leave mandates and declined to enact housing assistance during the pandemic.
The pandemic may be a national crisis, with Congress hashing out a series of stimulus bills to prop up the economy, but it’s largely been left to states to determine their own policies to deal with the effects. Oxfam looked at 27 data points to see how states were helping workers stay safe on the job and stay afloat if they lost one.
The report considers whether states offered enhanced food assistance, helped essential workers secure child care, guaranteed grace periods on health insurance premiums, or helped cover the cost of COVID-19 treatment, among other policies.
Katy Henderson, one of the researchers who worked on the report, said Oxfam has done a similar annual analysis in recent years but decided to conduct one specifically for the pandemic, given the unique nature of the emergency. She said the criteria were straightforward: What policies have states put in place to prevent people from ending up homeless, hungry, or sick from coronavirus?
“COVID dealt a shattering blow to the economy,” she said. “This is a question of how workers and their families are being supported, or not supported.”
States that have strong safety nets in general tended to score well on Oxfam’s coronavirus test. Blue states on the coasts have more employer mandates and a wider safety net than red states in the South, which helps explain why so many of the latter ended up in the basement of the rankings.
But Henderson said there were some surprises, like the strong showing by Arkansas. Overall, the state ended up in the middle of the pack ranked at 31, but stood near the top of the list in the health care category, tied at second with New Mexico, behind only Illinois. Arkansas has expanded not just Medicaid eligibility but also telehealth services and workers compensation for the pandemic, Henderson said.
Puerto Rico ended up ranked 21st overall on the 52-jurisdiction list, which also includes the District of Columbia. Henderson said Puerto Rico has been “proactive in using relatively meager resources” due to the territory’s high debt, offering stronger worker protections and health care policies than a lot of states.
The report noted a few caveats on the research. The authors could not measure how well a state enforced its policies, or to what lengths it went to make sure residents were aware of them. The data also captures policies in place during a set period of time ― between Feb. 15 and July 1 ― so a state like Alabama doesn’t get credit for the mask mandate it implemented in mid-July.
Henderson said it was important to evaluate state policies because President Donald Trump’s administration — which downplayed the threat of the virus since the pandemic began — has abdicated so much responsibility.
This is a question of how workers and their families are being supported, or not supported. Katy Henderson, Oxfam America
Agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have played a smaller role in the response than safety experts had hoped, leaving it to states to enact their own COVID-19 health regulations. And in lieu of a nationwide mask mandate, it’s been left to governors to decide whether and when to require residents to cover their faces. Several have avoided issuing statewide orders, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) even tried to block cities like Atlanta from enacting their own.
Henderson said the role of states will become even more important as the pandemic drags on, with help from the federal government already drying up. Congress allowed the additional $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit to expire, leaving a messier and less generous benefit program in its place.
“We hope this inspires a race to the top, for states and federal policy makers to enact changes to help their residents survive,” Henderson said.
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