With unemployment rates at levels not seen since the Great Depression, how much help is available to workers who have been affected?
It varies tremendously from state to state. And no state has a better safety net than Washington, according to a new report from Oxfam America, a nonprofit that works to alleviate poverty.
Washington's total score of 76.41 out of a possible 100 handily beat No. 2 New Jersey and No. 3 California. The state at the bottom of the rankings, Alabama, only scored 17.76.
Generally, the Northeast and West Coast states had the highest scores, and the South had the lowest.
“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 Minor Sinclair, Oxfam America’s US Domestic Program director, in a news release. “These are issues of survival and resilience, to allow our economy to recover and withstand future crises.”
Oxfam graded states for 27 policies which fall into three umbrella categories: Worker protections, which account for 45% of the total score, unemployment support (35%), and health care (20%). All data is based on policies and laws in effect between Feb. 15, 2020 and July 1, 2020. The report covers all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Washington received high scores across the board, including the top score for unemployment support. We tied for 2nd for worker protections, and tied for 10th for health care.
The scores translate directly into policies. For example, in Washington, we have implemented a moratorium on evictions or utilities shut off. We have expanded telehealth services or Medicaid access. We have mandated paid sick or family leave. Washington has also established requirements for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on the job to keep essential workers safe.
In Alabama, the state with the lowest score, none of these policies are in effect.
Weekly unemployment benefits vary widely across the nation, from a low of $190 in Puerto Rico to a high of $823 in Massachusetts. The federal CARES Act, which provided an extra $600 in weekly unemployment insurance, lapsed in July. That means people who have lost work are even more reliant upon state benefits.
According to the report, Washington's maximum weekly benefit is $790, a little lower than Massachusetts. However, the unemployment insurance amounts were looked at in relation to the overall cost-of-living index for each state. By that measure, Washington's unemployment benefit ranks as the most generous.
The report took into account a time period ending on July 1. Since then, Washington has implemented a new policy that provides funds to workers who lack proper documentation to work in the U.S. Washington is the second state, after California, to implement such a policy.
"If the index were done now, Washington state would actually score a little higher," said Kaitlyn Henderson, senior researcher at Oxfam America.
Still, we're not perfect.
Washington does not offer a grace period for renters. We do not have protection against retaliation, or child care for essential workers, both of which exist in California. And Washington does not mandate waived cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment.
"We were only measuring the policies," said Henderson. "We weren't measuring implementation."
For example, she notes that while Washington has created a fund for undocumented workers who have lost their jobs, she has heard reports that it is underfunded and workers are having a hard time accessing the money.