Study shows workforce needs to go back to the basics

Workers sort red onions on a conveyor belt while working at the River Point Farms packaging facility outside of Hermiston in 2016.

As Oregon workers celebrated Labor Day on Monday, they were enjoying a day off in a state considered one of the best in the country for employees.

Oxfam America, a global nonprofit against poverty, ranked Oregon the sixth best state in the country for workers based on wages, worker protections and the right to organize.

“It’s great that states like Oregon are at the forefront of fighting for these rights,” Mary Babic, manager of domestic programs for Oxfam, said.

One third of each state’s score was based on how the state’s minimum wage stacks up to the average cost of living in that state as calculated by MIT’s living wage calculator. The score also factored in whether cities and counties are allowed to set their own, higher minimum wage (in Oregon they are not).

Oregon actually has three minimum wages — currently $12.50 an hour for the Portland Metro area, $11.25 in “standard”-sized counties and $11 an hour in rural counties such as Umatilla and Morrow. Oxfam used $11.25 for its study, comparing it to the $27.34 an hour considered a living wage for a family of four in the state.

“It has now been over a decade since the federal minimum wage (of $7.25) has been raised,” Babic said. “States are taking action on their own because over the last 10 years, obviously the cost of living has gone up.”

Thirty three percent of each state’s score in the report was also calculated based on workers’ right to organize. Oregon tied for first with 20 other states in that category, which each allow teachers, firefighters and police to engage in collective bargaining; legalize project labor agreements; and do not have “right-to-work” laws.

The final part of each state’s score was based on a list of 14 different worker protections, ranging from paid sick leave to recourse for sexual harassment. Oregon ranked third in that category. It checked all of the boxes except paid family leave, which will not take effect statewide until 2023. Currently seven states offer paid family leave.

Babic said as corporations have increased their “grip” on workers, it has become more important than ever for states to push back. In the retail industry, for example, chains have moved to using computer algorithms to set employee schedules at the last minute based on fluctuating customer levels. Being asked to be on call at all times makes arranging for childcare, college classes or a second job difficult.

“A lot of workers rely on a series of part-time jobs to support them and their families, and it just becomes so precarious,” Babic said.

Oregon passed a law in 2017 requiring employers in the retail, hospitality and food service industries with more than 500 employees worldwide to give their employees at least seven days notice of their shifts (changing to 14 days starting July 1, 2020). Exceptions are made if the employee has volunteered to be placed on a stand-by list to be given the opportunity to fill in for a coworker last-minute if needed.

Employers who fit the above criteria are also not allowed to schedule an employee for a second shift within 10 hours of finishing their previous shift.

Oregon has increased other worker protections in recent years as well. In 2016 it became the fourth state to mandate sick leave. Employers with at least 10 employees must offer at least 40 hours of paid sick leave per year, and smaller employers must allow at least 40 hours of unpaid sick leave.

Oregon employers are also required to provide an unpaid, 30-minute lunch break for employees working more than six hours at a time, and an additional meal break should be added for shifts over 14 hours. Employees are also given a paid 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked.

Starting Sept. 29, employers will be required to allow breastfeeding mothers of children under 18 months old to take a break to pump their breast milk as many times as there is a “reasonable” need. Beginning Jan. 1, employers will also be required to provide “appropriate” accommodations to pregnant employees, including additional rest periods from manual labor if needed.

For a list of guidelines on other workplace laws in the state, including whistleblower protections, child labor laws, holiday pay, drug testing, internships and more, visit

Workers whose rights have been violated can seek recourse through the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. Saul Hubbard, communications director for BOLI, said the bureau enforces labor laws such as minimum wage, overtime meal breaks, prevailing wage on publicly funded projects and sick leave.

BOLI’s civil rights division also investigates potential cases of illegal discrimination in the workplace on the basis of protected classes such as race, sexual orientation and religion. The bureau also protects whistleblowers from retaliation after filing a complaint or reporting illegal activity.

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