Oxfam Finds Wide Variance In States' COVID-19 Protections

By Braden Campbell
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Law360 (September 1, 2020, 8:58 PM EDT) -- Georgia and Mississippi offer workers the fewest COVID-19 protections in the country while California is more protective of workers than any other state, according to a new Oxfam America report charting the best and worst places to work right now.

The advocacy group found dramatic differences between states' workplace protection schemes, with some shielding workers from being forced to return to work and protecting workers from retaliation when they speak up about unsafe conditions, while others lack key protections, such as paid sick leave and personal protective equipment requirements.

The policy differences between states are "quite stark," Oxfam senior researcher Kaitlyn Henderson told Law360.

"In Alabama, there are no housing supports, there is very little healthcare support, and if we're really just focusing on worker protection, there's no paid leave, there is no requirement for PPE, there's very little COVID-specific workplace protection," said Henderson, who was one of the report's authors. "If you look at a state like Washington State … they have virtually every single policy in place."

The report, released Wednesday, is Oxfam America's third annual "Best States to Work Index," which assigns the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico a numerical grade between 0 and 100 based on their policies. This year's coronavirus-focused report analyzes three categories, each consisting of several individual policies: worker protections, healthcare and unemployment.

Mississippi and Georgia rank dead last in the worker protection column with 12.5 points each and slot into the bottom five when their healthcare and unemployment policies are factored in. Not only do these states lack laws providing workers paid sick and family leave and shielding them from retaliation, but they also offer businesses partial immunity to coronavirus-related lawsuits. South Dakota, Wyoming and Alabama round out the bottom five for worker protections, with Oklahoma, Utah and Idaho next.

On the other end, California offers more worker protections than any other state with a 91.67 score, narrowly trailing Washington and New Jersey for tops overall. The Golden State offers nearly every worker protection on Oxfam's 12-item list, save for one: a statewide PPE mandate. Massachusetts and Washington state scored in the 80s, while New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., all featured in the 70s.

These rankings track with the conventional wisdom about states' policy priorities, Henderson said: States in the northeast tend to offer the most workplace protections, while southern states offer the fewest. But it includes some surprises, such as a strong showing by 21st-ranked Puerto Rico, she added.

"The government of Puerto Rico is one of the most in-debt governments in the U.S., and they ranked better on our index than most states," Henderson said. "Part of that has to do with the fact that worker protection policies are enshrined in their constitution."

Other areas Oxfam considered offered more surprises, Henderson said. While northeastern and western states tended to earn higher scores for their healthcare and unemployment policies — such as expanded Medicaid accessibility and heightened jobless and food assistance benefits — Kentucky ranked near the top in both, while New Mexico and Arkansas tied for the second-best healthcare score.

But all states could be doing more, Henderson asserted.

"No state scored above an 80 [overall] in our scale … so even states that are doing very well and being proactive still have space for improvement," Henderson said.

--Editing by Steven Edelstone.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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