Why is North Carolina ranked as the worst state to work in?

North Carolina placed last on Oxfam’s 2022 list of Best and Worst States to Work in America, ranking No. 52 below all other states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. 

Oxfam, a non-profit focused on ending poverty and injustice, calculated the rankings by combining data on wage policies, working protections and rights to organize. 

Labor experts and unionized workers at Duke said they weren’t surprised by North Carolina’s low ranking. 

Matthew Johnson, assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, whose research seeks to understand how regulations and shifts in the labor market affect working conditions in the United States, shared several reasons why North Carolina placed last. 

He said that the major reason behind North Carolina’s placement is that the federal government has ceded most employment and labor market laws to the states, and that North Carolina has chosen to implement less-generous policies compared to the rest of the U.S. 

Among other factors, Johnson pointed to North Carolina’s choice not to raise the minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 an hour. North Carolina also prohibits local governments from implementing higher minimum wages in their jurisdictions. 

Johnson also noted the lack of federal required paid sick and parental leave and North Carolina’s choice not to pass state regulations to implement these protections.

“The United States has the dubious honor of the only advanced country that doesn’t have federal, required paid, sick leave and paid parental leave,” Johnson added. “This is left to the states to pass these [laws] and North Carolina is one of the states that hasn’t done so.” 

Austin Wadle, Duke Graduate Student Union treasurer and a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering, agreed with Johnson. 

“There’s often been a regression in terms of what kind of protections a worker can see on the job,” Wadle said, citing that American workers do not have the same protections that they “historically had.”  

Johnson also said that another key factor contributing to North Carolina’s low ranking was the state’s right-to-work laws.  

“These laws basically say that unions cannot make paying dues mandatory for workers that are covered by dues,” he said. “Right-to-work laws reduce the financial stability of unions and have been shown by a lot of research to weaken them.”

Charles Gooch, a 49-year Duke employee and the current chief steward for the Local 77 Chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents staff at Marketplace, agreed with Johnson, adding that many of his coworkers are not aware of their presence. 

“Most unions are up North. We’re in the South and people don’t know what a union is, most of my coworkers don’t know what you do in a union,” Gooch said. “So many people are not part of the union, but I still protect them. The ones that pay dues, the ones that don’t pay dues, I still look out for them, I still defend them.” 

North Carolina is a “Right-to-Work” state, meaning that labor unions cannot require workers to join on condition of their employment. This means that even if a union is NLRB-certified, all employees are not members by default; they must choose to join the union.

Johnson added that “a lot of careful scholars argue that [such laws are] rooted in race” in the South. 

“States that historically had a larger African American population have lingering relations that have led these states, for whatever reason it may be, to make labor market policies that are less generous for everyone,” he said. 

Overly pessimistic ranking

Johnson noted, however, that Oxfam’s ranking may paint an overly pessimistic picture of the working conditions in the state as a whole, because working conditions depend on local markets. 

“One way that I think this Oxfam ranking is perhaps misleading is that policies and regulations are one factor that governs where a state is a ‘good’ place to work, but an arguably more important factor is how vibrant the local economy and job market are,” he wrote in an email. “I am guessing many workers would say the Triangle is a very good place to work even if North Carolina’s labor laws are abysmally inadequate.”   

Looking to the future

Wadle expressed hope at the current wave of unionization among Starbucks and Amazon workers as a catalyst for change in North Carolina. 

“The way we change these rankings and our real lived conditions, not just in a relative sense to other states but just on the whole, is by working together and acting collectively,” Wadle said. “These unions have shown that that’s how you get better wages, have real protections from harassment discriminations, and have a real seat at the table.” 

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Zoe Spicer | Enterprise Editor

Zoe Spicer is a Trinity senior and an enterprise editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.


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