Politics of Poverty

Working women in the US face long odds—but in some states, it’s nearly impossible to win

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woman server working.jpg
Compensation and conditions for workers vary wildly across the country. For example, a server in North Carolina earns $2.13 an hour and has scant protections or rights to organize. A server in Oregon earns $12.75 an hour and enjoys robust protections and rights. Photo: FluxFactory

Working women in the US face dramatically different conditions based simply on where they live. Oxfam recently created an index to assess the best and worst states for working women. Geographic inequality is only deepening.

Let’s say you’re a server in a restaurant in the US. Odds are you’re a woman, most likely a woman of color. You earn the tipped minimum wage (plus, hopefully, tips); you work a difficult schedule, on your feet most of the time; your risk of sexual harassment runs extraordinarily high (up to 90% of servers report incidents).

Overall, a challenging job—but it can also be rewarding, and even enjoyable.

But it’s not the same wherever you go. Your experience in one state can be radically different from that in another.

For example, if you work in Oregon (the top state for working women), you earn the equivalent of the regular minimum wage: $12.75 an hour. If you work in North Carolina (the bottom state), you earn $2.13 an hour.[1] This makes a huge difference: A higher tipped wage both reduces gender and wage pay gaps AND mitigates the risk of sexual harassment (as servers rely less on currying customer approval). (And just makes it easier to survive.)

In Oregon, you enjoy accommodations at work if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you have paid sick and family leave, you have protection from sexual harassment, and your employer needs to obey rules around scheduling to make it possible to plan and earn.

In North Carolina, none of these protections is in place. No accommodations for pregnancy, no paid sick leave, no protections around random schedule changes. You’re in a much more precarious position, especially if you have children or dependents at home.

Let’s face it, working women in the US face enormous challenges in the best of times—and these times are not even nice. The pandemic has exposed and exacerbated longstanding problems for women in the workplace, from low wages to sexual harassment to lack of paid sick and family leave—and more.

As we prepared to compile the 2021 edition of the Best States to Work Index (BSWI), we realized that, while all workers are struggling now, working women are facing a tidal wave of increasing demands and deteriorating conditions; so we created a new, parallel index: the Best and Worst States for Working Women.

The results are not surprising—but they are revealing. While the state rankings adhere somewhat closely to the standard index, the overall inequities between the states are even more stark. The scores in the women’s index range from much lower (3.60 for North Carolina) to much higher (95.36 for Oregon); these numbers reflect how regressive conditions can be in one state, and how supportive in another.

Essentially, where a woman lives and works determines whether she will be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace and whether or not she can provide for a family.

What’s in the women’s index?

The BSWI has always meausred policies that either disproportionately benefit women or are specifically gendered (equal pay, pregnancy accommodations); the new index pulls out those policies and adjusts the weighting of the scores accordingly.

Wages: This dimension considers the ratio of the tipped minimum wage to cost of living for one earner and two dependents (69% of tipped wage workers are women, 36% are mothers, and over half of those are single mothers). Some states have raised the tipped minimum wage above the federal threshold of $2.13 (in Washington, for example, it’s equal to the minimum wage, at $13.69); others have not, leaving countless women bringing home rock-bottom earnings.

Worker protections: Many states have established policies that protect workers—especially women and working parents—from abuse in a variety of situations.

Among the data points in this dimension: Are there protections for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding? Is there a mandate for paid sick and/or family leave? Are there rules to limit sudden changes in shift scheduling? Has the state extended protections to domestic workers (overwhelmingly women, and excluded from federal labor law)?

Rights to organize: Many states have strong policies to ensure that workers enjoy rights to organize, collectively bargain, and negotiate wages. Collective bargaining results in stronger protections and higher wages.

Public school teachers are the largest sector of public workers in the United States, and more than three-quarters of public school teachers are women. This dimension considers whether states protect their right to organize.

How do states rank?


As in the standard BSWI for 2021, Oregon scores at the top. It is one of the few states to mandate nearly every worker protection policy we measure, and with one of the highest tipped wages in the country, Oregon easily slides into the top position.

A few states do rank higher in the women’s index than in the standard. Chief among them are Hawaii (8 in the women’s index and 14 overall) and Puerto Rico (11 in the women’s index and 18 overall). Puerto Rico has one of the oldest paid family leave provisions in the United States and has long protected rights to organize, including for public school teachers.

The relative consistency in rankings across the two indexes underlines the fact that states that value workers in the workplace also consider the particular needs of working women.


As we’ve said before, workers across the board deserve decent working conditions, fair compensation for their labor, and opportunities to organize. The Biden administration may recognize this, but until we see results, working families will continue to pay the price for decades of federal inaction. We are headed for a future of deepening inequality, eyes wide open. But there is an opportunity now for course correction. Let’s gather our forces and take it.


[1] The tipped minimum wage is based on the assumption that customers will compensate workers directly, and that employers are legally obligated to ensure that servers earn at least the state minimum wage if tips are insufficient. However, the enforcement of that mandate is rare, leading to rampant wage theft. Only a few states have a tipped minimum wage equal or close to their minimum wage. The reliance on customers to make up the difference in wages leads to disproportionately high levels of sexual harassment for workers, especially women, in tipped minimum wage jobs. A more robust tipped wage not only boosts wages for women, it also protects them from risks of sexual harassment on the job.

And because people of color are disproportionately represented in these jobs, an increase in the tipped minimum wage reduces the racial pay gap.

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