Worker-led state and local policy victories in 2021 showcase potential for an equitable recovery

What new world of work can be built from the crisis COVID-19 created for workers and working-class communities? Some 2021 state and local policy victories are providing early answers. Across the country, workers are organizing to win policy changes aimed at strengthening labor standards, raising wages, reversing long-standing race and gender-based exclusions from labor rights, and building power to ensure these gains are not short-lived. The following examples of campaign and policy victories from recent legislative sessions are just the beginning of what is necessary to create a world where all work truly has dignity.

Building worker power and protecting the right to organize at the state level

Long before COVID-19, the right to unionize varied widely depending on a worker’s occupation, race, gender, or ZIP code. Union workers had more job security during the pandemic, and more workers are expressing interest in gaining a voice on the job through a union, yet legal exclusions and steep barriers to organizing mean that far too few workers have access to the union protections they want and need. Because federal labor law still excludes farmworkers, domestic workers, and public-sector workers from coverage, states are left to determine whether millions of disproportionately Black, Brown, immigrant, and women workers in front-line occupations will have legal rights to pursue a union contract.

This year, educators, care workers, farmworkers, and public servants acutely affected by the pandemic worked to accelerate the passage of proposals to expand labor rights and defend existing rights from ongoing state legislative attacks. Colorado enacted a groundbreaking, comprehensive Farmworker Bill of Rights extending full rights to organize unions and collectively bargain to 40,000 farmworkers across the state in a significant effort to advance worker power at the state level. The legislation also includes new workplace safety protections, rights to minimum wage and overtime pay, anti-retaliation protections, rest and meal breaks, and other minimum standards that have long covered workers in other sectors.

Several states and localities took important steps to extend collective bargaining rights to public-sector workers in 2021. Ongoing state struggles to extend full bargaining rights to public-sector workers have important economic impacts, including closing pay gaps for Black workers and women, who are overrepresented among government workers. In Maryland, for example, legislators voted to extend collective bargaining rights to community college faculty and staff who have long been denied the same rights as other education workers in the state. Lawmakers are now poised for a second vote on the bill to override the governor’s recent veto.

In Virginia, a breakthrough state law authorizing local governments to enter into collective bargaining agreements with public employees took effect May 1, reversing a decades-long ban on public-sector collective bargaining in the state. The city of Alexandria became the first local jurisdiction to pass an ordinance establishing a framework for negotiating union contracts with municipal employees under the new law, and multiple Virginia counties and cities are now considering how to follow suit.

In Nevada, state employees who won collective bargaining rights through state legislation in 2019 are now using the process of negotiating their first contracts to have a say in their working conditions, state agency policies, and critical state budget decisions that will shape post-pandemic access to public services for all state residents. Nevada also created a new Home Care Employment Board intended to provide home care workers with a mechanism for collectively bargaining over wage and employment standards to improve their working conditions.

In states where legislators continued attacking workers’ rights this year, workers largely succeeded in resisting. Workers in Texas defeated efforts to prohibit local elected officials from improving working conditions through fair scheduling policies, worker safety requirements, and prevention of discrimination based on arrest and conviction history. A similar bill in West Virginia that would have prevented local elected officials from strengthening labor rights was also defeated. In states like Montana and Florida, public-sector workers successfully defended existing bargaining rights against serious threats to erode them. In Montana and New Hampshire, so-called “right-to-work” bills aimed at weakening unions were defeated via floor votes, preventing the downward pressure on wages and job quality that results from such measures.

Growing scrutiny of worker misclassification also generated important state policy advances in 2021. Employers who illegally misclassify employees as “independent contractors” skirt payroll tax, unemployment, and workers’ compensation payments, while depriving workers of fundamental workplace rights, including the right to organize a union. This year, Nevada and New Jersey were among states that adopted new measures aimed at cracking down on misclassification, and continued state and federal action on misclassification will be key to rebuilding worker power.

Raising wages

Building on over a decade of momentum for raising minimum wages, workers and advocates in both Delaware and Rhode Island won legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. Rhode Island also passed bills designed to ensure equal pay for all employees performing comparable work, regardless of gender or ethnicity. A powerful labor-community coalition in Connecticut worked to expand state health and education funding, including Medicaid funding increases necessary to boost starting wages of long-term care workers. And Washington legislators ended the exclusion of farmworkers from eligibility for overtime pay and passed legislation to boost compensation and ensure access to premium-free health care for child care workers.

Valuing and protecting front-line workers

Some states and cities are crafting innovative policies in response to popular demands for safer workplaces, supplemental pay for “essential” workers, and paths back to employment for those in industries hit hardest by COVID-19 unemployment. For example, Minnesota approved a state budget that includes $250 million for payments to front-line workers and established a working group to make initial recommendations on how funds should be disbursed. Two city councils in southern California have approved union-initiated proposals to distribute bonus payments to grocery store workers from funds allocated through the American Rescue Plan. Hospitality workers and their unions in California and Nevada led successful efforts to pass legislation ensuring laid-off hospitality and tourism industry workers have rights to return to their former jobs as positions open up during the recovery. And union members laid off from multiple Chicago hotels mobilized to enact a similar local measure covering hotel workers across the city.

Legislative action in several states has established or extended policies to ensure those who suffered illness or disability following COVID-19 workplace exposure could access benefits though state workers’ compensation systems (including health care, lost wage replacement, or death benefits). Connecticut committed $34 million to an Essential Workers COVID-19 Assistance Fund to pay expanded COVID-19 workers’ compensation benefits to affected workers. Other examples—like Washington state’s new Health Emergency Labor Standards Act—strengthened safety standards, antiretaliation protections, and exposure notification rules, while Oregon lawmakers also strengthened antiretaliation protections for workers who raise safety and health concerns. Separately, Washington passed a bill requiring employers to provide hazard communication and training to temporary workers, who often fall through the cracks under existing employment laws.

These measures are just a few examples of policy responses to long-standing systemic problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where “at-will” employees lacking union protections were often forced to choose between their health and their paychecks on a daily basis; thousands found themselves fired or disciplined for speaking up about health and safety concerns; and those infected at work but unable to access evidence needed to prove the source of their exposure were often denied workers’ compensation benefits under restrictive state rules.

Unemployment insurance

The pandemic spotlight on state policy failures enabled workers and advocates to fend off persistent threats to unemployment benefits in some states, while making progress in others to improve or expand state unemployment systems. Examples include increases to notoriously low unemployment benefit amounts in Arizona and expansion of unemployment to cover school workers for the summer in Illinois and Oregon.

In New York, a powerful statewide coalition won a landmark Excluded Workers Fund when the legislature committed an unprecedented $2.1 billion to make up for the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from federal aid during the COVID-19 pandemic. The escalating campaign organized by coalition partners to propose, win, and implement the program serves as a model for other states to follow in directing funds to the primarily Black, Brown, and women workers most affected by the intertwined public health and economic crises of the past year while boosting local economies.

Elsewhere, ongoing struggles with highly uneven access to unemployment and recent harmful moves by over half of all states to prematurely cut off federal pandemic unemployment benefits continue to point to the need for federal reform of the unemployment system to address systemic inequities.

Paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave

While the pandemic continues to point to the desperate need for comprehensive federal paid leave policies, several legislatures acted to create or expand existing state programs in 2021. Georgia initiated a new paid parental leave program for state employees and teachers; New Mexico created a new paid sick time policy; and in Illinois, teachers and school employees will now be able to use up to 30 days of paid sick leave after giving birth to, fostering, or adopting a child. In Washington, two new policy changes aim to make the state’s paid family and medical leave program more accessible by allowing people who lost work due to COVID to qualify for family or medical leave and expanding the definition of “family” so that everyone can access leave to care for loved ones.

Each time workers win new policies that address both long-standing power imbalances and pressing pandemic challenges, they are contributing to a more robust and equitable recovery, an eventual end to racist, sexist occupational exclusions from fundamental labor rights, and a world where all workers have full and equal legal protections to organize and collectively bargain over the future of their own work. While prospects for federal action on paid leave, minimum wage, unemployment, labor standards enforcement, and labor law reform remain uncertain, states and cities will play central roles in empowering workers and reshaping our economy in the months to come—and redefining what may become possible at the federal level.