Opinion: Commentary: Good for Business — But Workers?

Opinion: Commentary: Good for Business — But Workers?

Did you know that a state can be both number one for workers and number one for business? In fact, Washington State shared that honor last year and maintains a number two ranking this year in the CNBC 2019 America’s Top States for Business. Who was number one this year? Virginia. In fact, this is the fourth time that the Commonwealth has reached the top of the list since the first CNBC study in 2007. According to the study, Virginia’s comeback as the top state for business is due in part to its extraordinary workforce, ranked the best in the nation. Virginia ranks in the top 10 for educational attainment, with nearly 38% of adults holding a bachelor’s degree or higher according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and Virginia has the nation’s fourth-highest concentration of crucial science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) employees, which made up 9% of Virginia’s workforce in 2018.

However, that is where the good news ends. Virginia is still woefully ranked as the last state overall for workers, most recently by Oxfam in their study, “Best and Worst States to Work in America.” In fact, they rank Virginia #51 for wage policies, #48 for worker protections and #49 for right to organize. And yet, just last year Washington State was ranked both first for workers and business. Why can’t we be recognized for treating our workforce similarly?

Virginia has a stagnated minimum wage for over 10 years at the federal minimum of $7.25, and provides lackluster unemployment benefits, ranking 37th among states by dollar amount and 39th by the percentage of wages replaced. In addition, Virginia does not offer workplace protections for pregnant or nursing women. The Virginia General Assembly has also refused to codify public employment non-discrimination policies for LGBTQ individuals. Virginia workers are also virtually unable to sue their employers for unpaid wages that they are owed due to weak wage theft laws and too few investigators at the Department of Labor and Industry. Due to these policies, Virginia falls far short of its potential as a top choice for workers.

This CNBC study favors states that have passed “right-to-work” laws, however, Washington is a prime example of a state that can succeed and thrive while also not being a “right-to-work” state. “Right-to-work” is frankly a misnomer phrase that sounds like something positive which it is not. When Virginia enacted its “right-to-work” law in 1947 it was to block the rise of unions that organize workers of all races. What the law does is prohibits security agreements between companies and labor unions. Specifically, employees cannot be compelled to join a union or to pay union dues, but still are able to receive the benefits and protections of unions if they work in a unionized environment. Practically, the effect is to starve unions from access to funding — the dues. It’s analogous to many workplace organizations that require dues, like bar membership for lawyers. If you don’t pay your annual dues, you will not be allowed to practice law. Moreover, it is important to note that workers in “right-to-work” states earn far less than workers in states without “right-to-work” policies, are less likely to be provided with health insurance through their jobs, and are also more likely to be exposed to unsafe working conditions.

A state that doesn’t value its workers won’t succeed for long. There comes a point where workers will pick up and move to where they are valued and treated with respect. It is the workforce that makes a strong business.