Best States to Work during COVID Index: Massachusetts ranked # 4, Washington and New Jersey top the list

Minor Sinclair Photo: OxFam

BOSTON–Ahead of Labor Day, Oxfam America has released a new report and interactive map ranking all 50 states as well as DC and Puerto Rico, based on their policies to protect working families during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report offers 27 data points on three specific areas of state-level assistance: worker protections, healthcare protections and unemployment support.

“The pandemic has exacerbated challenges facing low-wage working families in the US—but it did not create them,” said Minor Sinclair, Oxfam America’s US Domestic Program Director. “Instead, it has revealed the ugly reality of deep, structural problems for millions of working families who risk falling into poverty, hunger, and homelessness.”

According to the report, failures by the federal government to adequately protect working families have led states to step in to provide support and protections; however, those responses vary widely. For instance, Alabama (at the bottom of the index), has no moratorium on evictions or utilities shut off, no expanded telehealth services or expanded Medicaid access, no mandated paid sick or family leave, no requirements for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Washington state, which comes in at the top, offers every one of those protections.

States also vary substantially in unemployment benefits, which have become a lifeline for working families. The maximum amount of unemployment benefits in each state ranges from as low as $190 a week in Puerto Rico to $823 in Massachusetts. A difference which can amount to the ability to pay standing bills—or fall dangerously behind.

“Some working families are coping, in states that offer a cushion from the fall; but many other families are suddenly on hard ground—out in the street, without adequate means to buy food for their children,” said Sinclair. “These are issues of survival and resilience, to allow our economy to recover and withstand future crises.”

While state-based responses vary, the index reveals similarities within geographic regions. States in the Northeast and West offer much more robust healthcare support for workers, while states in the South have largely failed to expand Medicaid access, expand telehealth services, expand workers compensation due to COVID-19, or waive cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment.

States in the Northeast have been among the most generous in extending supports to unemployed workers. Connecticut is the only state to implement moratoriums on evictions and utilities shut offs, and to offer a grace period on rent. Washington, New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire implemented two of the three housing provisions, and worked to battle the possible surge of homelessness created by the pandemic. These same states also increased food assistance. However, Alabama, Utah, Missouri, Idaho, and Florida offer no housing assistance, and have very low unemployment payments.

“COVID-19 is pushing many populations further into the economic and social margins,” says Kaitlyn Henderson, Senior Researcher at Oxfam America. “Unemployment numbers for women, people of color, and immigrants continue to soar past overall rates. And, as schools remain closed or remote, single mothers especially are being compelled to choose between childcare and their jobs.”

The index focuses on longstanding policies that aim to address challenges facing primarily women, including COVID-19-specific supports, like state-provided childcare for essential workers, and increased food assistance. (A recent Brookings report noted that the households most susceptible to food insecurity during COVID-19 are those headed by single working mothers.) The index also highlights how COVID-19 is hitting people of color the hardest, with a noted lack of access to resources such as healthy food and healthcare that have laid the foundation for the recent staggering losses within communities of color.

All states and the federal government have significant room to enact policies that protect working families–both in response to COVID-19, and overall. The report suggests the following three vital policy changes that have the potential to improve the lives of workers and their families: 1) Improve worker protections by passing paid sick time, paid family and medical leave programs that cover all workers, and fund childcare for all workers 2) expand Medicaid and 3) increase unemployment payments.