Activists take part in a protest outside of the Old Ebbitt Grill to call for a full minimum wage with tips for restaurant workers in Washington, DC in May 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images) North Carolina named in report as worst state to work in.
Activists take part in a protest outside of the Old Ebbitt Grill to call for a full minimum wage with tips for restaurant workers in Washington, DC in May 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images)

North Carolina’s lack of worker protections makes it the worst place in the country to work, especially for Black women, a recent analysis found.

North Carolina doesn’t do right by its workers. Especially for those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, who work waiting tables, caring for young children, harvesting food or stocking shelves, earning enough to live is unnecessarily hard.  

That was the conclusion reached by the nonprofit Oxfam International, which found North Carolina was the worst state for workers overall and women in particular after examining every state’s workplace laws.

These two black eyes caught some by surprise. After all, the state is often billed as an economic powerhouse in the South and has attracted major employers like Apple and Amazon in recent years. It consistently makes “Best Of” lists as places for people and corporations to move.

But North Carolina has fallen far behind other states in protecting workers, with no laws on the books that guarantee paid sick leave, allow accommodations for pregnant workers, or reinforce workers’ rights to organize and unionize, said Kaitlyn Henderson, one of the Oxfam report authors.

“This has been a bit of a shock for North Carolina, but it’s a necessary shock,” Henderson said. “Even if this isn’t your reality, it is a reality.”

Black women and women of color are especially hurt by the North Carolina legislature’s decision to not pass a minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, far below the estimated $31.26 hourly wage MIT researchers estimated is needed to support a family of four in North Carolina. And the tipped wage of $2.13 is even worse, given that many times wait staff don’t make enough in tips to get by, Henderson said. 

Oregon, which topped Oxfam’s analysis as the best state to work in, sets its minimum wage at $12.75 an hour.

“The minimum wage has a severe impact on women of color because they’re more likely to be shunted into work that pays minimum wage,” said Ana Pardo, co-director of the Worker’s Rights Project at the NC Justice Center. “It’s very important for that sector of the population that the minimum wage be something livable, and in North Carolina it is very far from that.”

Shalaya Mabry, an Asheville woman who works supporting people with intellectual disabilities, wasn’t surprised by North Carolina’s poor showing. She’s held plenty of low-paying jobs over the years.

“There’s more rights for the employer than there are for the employee,” Mabry said.

Shalaya Mabry, of Asheville

She enjoys her current job, but is frustrated by the low pay and chronic understaffing there, conditions that she says put both workers and vulnerable clients at risk.

Mabry sees unions as a solution for working people like herself, but North Carolina is a “right to work” state that frowns on unionization. Mabry is part of NC Raise Up, a worker-led advocacy group involved with the national Fight for $15 effort to increase the minimum wage and organize service workers.

“If we don’t stand up together, then they’re just going to continue to do the things that they do,” Mabry said. That could change “if we stand up, and we start fighting, and we start saying, ‘Look, this is not okay, we need to be heard.’”  

What’s Lacking in NC’s Labor Laws

North Carolina’s status as a right-to-work state means that employers can, in most cases, dismiss employees without reason, Pardo said. 

It’s also one of a few mainly Southern states that have laws banning collective bargaining, the process by which public employees can form a union and negotiate contracts with their local governments. 

That means teachers, who are overwhelmingly women, fall far behind in North Carolina than educators in other states, Henderson said. That was one reason why North Carolina’s ranking was so low in the Oxfam analysis.  

“These women are being forgotten in a lot of ways and they’re not being prioritized,” Henderson said. “They’re doing the work that is absolutely vital.”

A scorecard created by Oxfam found North Carolina also lacked protections in these areas:

·  Accommodations for pregnant or breastfeeding workers

·  Paid family or sick leave

·  Rules against sudden changes in shift schedules (common in retail work)  

·  State laws against workplace sexual harassment

·  Worker protections for domestic workers

·  Collective bargaining for public school teachers and employees

Things could change, of course. The state legislature has the power to pass laws that would require employers to offer some type of paid leave, as well as raise the minimum wage in the state or offer other protections, Pardo said. 

The report should be a wakeup call for the working public about how to push for those changes, she said. 

“I hope that folks don’t forget what we learned last year, which is that if we don’t work, everything stops,” she said. “It’s the power that we have. And we need to flex it if we want to see the world we want to live in.”