HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) — Best in business, worst for workers?

While North Carolina regularly ranks as the top state in the nation for business, it’s not taking top honors in a new report that ranks the best places to be a worker in the United States.

Oxfam America released a study that ranked the “Best and Worst States to Work” and North Carolina found itself dead last, only racking up a score of 7.35 out of a possible 100 in the three criteria averaged together.

Oxfam ranked states with three weighted criteria: wages, worker protections and the right to organize. North Carolina ranked near the bottom for all of these categories.

How North Carolina ranks

The study breaks down several factors for how it came to its conclusions. North Carolina’s minimum wage is $7.25, which is only 18.86% of the cost of living for an average family of four, with tipped minimum wage only $2.13 or 29.38% of the minimum wage.

Low unemployment benefits also factor in. The average unemployment in North Carolina covers around 9% of the overall cost of living in the state. Additionally, minimum wage protections are not extended to farm workers, and localities are not permitted to set their own minimum wage that exceeds the state-mandated wage.

Lack of protections for workers, including a lack of legal protections for breastfeeding mothers or heat safety standards for outdoor workers contributes to North Carolina coming in #51 in worker protections, only ahead of Mississippi.

North Carolina is #49 in the right to organize, in a four-way tie with South Carolina, Texas and Georgia with a score of 0 out of 100. There are no state-level legal protections for workers, as North Carolina is a "right to work" state, which Oxfam states is a union-suppressing tactic. Collective bargaining is not offered to teachers or public workers, and the state "does not protect workers against wage theft retaliation."


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On Wednesday, the Communications Workers of America held a protest in Yadkin County after a worker who expressed vocal support for unionizing efforts at the internet company Zirrus was fired.

"Since a supermajority of eligible workers petitioned for union recognition last month, Zirrus management has spied on employees engaged in organizing, interrogated employees about their organizing activities, and threatened to eliminate jobs if its workers organize," said CWA Organizer Christina Ronk. "Because those unlawful actions did not have the desired effect of weakening the workers' resolve to unionize, management has now fired a union activist because of his organizing activity.

"All of these actions by Zirrus management are illegal under federal labor law, and the Company knows it. Apparently breaking the law is the price that Zirrus is prepared to pay to try to stop their workers from organizing. If the Company wants to battle it out in the legal process, CWA will do what we have to do. But the workers won't be deterred. Zirrus has shown its true colors, and its employees now know what they have to do to win this fight."

In the southern states, Virginia leads the pack, ranking at 28 out of 52.

Candidates respond

In 2024, North Carolina voters will choose a new labor commissioner. While incumbent Josh Dobson will not be seeking reelection, Republicans Jon Hardister (R-Guilford,) Luke Farley and Travis Wilson have announced a run for the seat, as well as Democrat Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston. FOX8 reached out to the candidates for comment about Oxfam America's study.

Luke Farley

Luke Farley offered the following comment:

"Oxfam is just plain wrong. It measures worker happiness based on factors like job-killing over regulation and forced unionization. By limiting economic opportunity, these policies hurt the very people they're supposed to help. As Labor Commissioner, my number one priority will always be keeping our workers safe and healthy. But North Carolina is already one of the safest places in the country to work. Our injury incidence rate is lower than the national average. As Labor Commissioner, I'll fight to protect workers without hurting jobs or bankrupting businesses."

Luke Farley, Republican candidate for labor commissioner.

Safety regulations are a small factor in the Oxfam America data. A report shared in 2022 by WalletHub ranked North Carolina as number 4 in workplace safety.

Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford)

Hardister seemed in agreement with Farley, stating his belief that the low ranking had more to do with politics and that the data was not credible due to the left-of-center beliefs of the publication.

Oxfam America is regarded as a left-of-center organization with a biased political perspective. In my view, the ranking of North Carolina that you cited is not credible or objective. 

North Carolina has been ranked number-one for business by CNBC, which is generally regarded as a balanced and objective source. In addition, our state has received very favorable ratings from other reputable sources such as Site Selection and Forbes. These ratings cite not only the business environment, but also the opportunity for people to get a job and climb the economic ladder. 

Furthermore, if North Carolina is such a poor state to work and live in, why are so many people moving here? We are one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. People want to live here because we have relatively low cost-of-living, quality jobs and access to job training. People wouldn't be moving here at such a fast clip if this was not a favorable state for people to work in.

We have ample benefits for workers, including a variety of safety protocols in the workplace, workers compensation laws, an unemployment benefit system that is solvent, methods to settle wage disputes, and a low tax burden on working-class families. 

The NC Department of Labor, which oversees workplace safety, inspections for advanced manufacturing, inspections for industrial equipment, wage and labor disputes, and workforce development, has a total budget of nearly $50 million and nearly 400 employees. This agency plays a major role in making sure workers are protected and that workplaces are safe. The investment that the state makes in this agency shows that we care about our workers and we want them to prosper. 

Once again, I do not believe the study you cited is objective or credible. I am not surprised that a left-of-center organization published an article that is critical of a state that is largely under Republican control. 

Rep. Jon Hardister, Republican candidate for labor commissioner.

Winston, however, argues that North Carolina needs to "strengthen" its labor laws to be "more fair for our workers."

Braxton Winston II (Courtesy of the City of Charlotte)
Braxton Winston II (Courtesy of the City of Charlotte)

The time is now for North Carolina’s elected officials to step up for workers and keep our economy strong.

As I’ve been traveling the state, workers are echoing what we are all seeing nationally. Working people want to be treated fairly, and the majority of North Carolinians support that.

Our state is known for supporting technological innovations. This study tells me that the time to act is now, or we risk being left behind. As an hourly worker myself, I’ve seen with my own eyes what the people are sharing with me. The pandemic has changed the workplace. That, along with rising temperatures are challenges we must address now and for the future.

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There has never been a more important moment for our elected officials to listen to employers and address their regulatory questions while simultaneously strengthening labor laws to be more fair for our workers. I’ve done both in Charlotte. The people of North Carolina are
speaking, we need leadership that listens to workers and will work with employers.

Charlotte City Councilman Braxton Winston, Democrat candidate for labor commissioner.

While the CNBC ranking did mark North Carolina favorably in the economy and the access to capital for business owners, it only gave North Carolina a C+ in cost of living and a C- in "life, health and inclusion" and the majority of the ranking did not deal with labor rights such as wages and employment protections, which is the focus of the Oxfam America data.

Other candidates for labor commissioner had not yet responded as of the writing of this article.