Is Utah really the 44th-worst state for workers? Analyzing employee protections.

State does OK with pregnancy safeguards, but it falls short on a range of commonsense issues.

(Charlie Ehlert | University of Utah Health) Health care workers attend to patients in the intensive care unit at University Hospital in Salt Lake City in March.

This month, the highly regarded, anti-famine nonprofit Oxfam released its report on the “Best and Worst States to Work in America” — and it didn’t make Utah look good. In particular, Utah was ranked 44th, down in Oklahoma/Alabama territory.

Best States to Work Index (https://webassets.oxfamamerica.org/media/documents/BSWI_2022_Report_Final.pdf)

The findings were based on three “dimensions”: wages, worker protections, and right-to-organize laws. Last week, we looked at how Oxfam measured wages and had some quibbles with its work. But does the group’s approach to the other categories make more sense? This time, we’ll look at how Utah’s laws to protect workers compare to other states.

[Read Andy Larsen’s previous column on worker wages.]

Worker protections

The “worker protections” dimension of Oxfam’s analysis makes up 35% of the final index and includes these seven protections:

5%: pregnancy accommodation protections

In 2016, Utah passed a law saying that employers with 15 or more employees cannot refuse to “provide reasonable accommodations for needs related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” — including breastfeeding — if requested by the worker, unless the accommodations would impose an undue hardship on the business. Employers can’t require a doctor’s note for more frequent food or restroom breaks. Some states, remarkably, do not have these laws.

5%: equal pay protections

Utah, like every other state, prohibits pay discrimination on the basis of gender or race. But also included in Oxfam’s analysis are pay transparency restrictions and salary history rules.

In particular, 20 states have laws preventing employers from disciplining their workers for discussing their pay. Utah has no such law. And 21 states, to break the cycle of wage discrimination, have laws preventing employers from requesting or requiring salary history from prospective workers. (Workers can give their previous salary information if they choose to, but they can’t be required to give it.) Utah, again, doesn’t have any such protection.

5%: paid leave protections

Some states have laws that give paid family leave or paid sick leave to their workers — some paid by the state; some paid for by the business. Utah, though, does not have any employment-related protections for either those people raising a new child, nor for those who are ill.

5%: scheduling protections

Ten states have scheduling protection laws to prevent employers from abusing their employees’ time. In California, for example, if an employee is required to show up for a workday, and then is sent home without working or working less than half a day, that employee must be compensated for a half day’s pay. Utah has no such law.

Some states have different rules regarding “on-call” and “split” shifts. Federal law says employees must be paid for “on-call” hours, but how “on call” is defined can differ from state to state. Utah’s law is pretty clear, though: On-call time spent anywhere must be paid. Some states also say those working “split shifts” — say, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. during a lunch rush, then 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner — must be compensated for the additional travel required. Utah has no such protections.

Finally, some states require employers to give significant advanced notice on shift schedules, say, a week or two. Utah is not among those states.

5%: sexual harassment protections

In all, 39 states explicitly prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace — and Utah is one of them. Eight states have required sexual harassment training for private employers. Utah is not one of those.

5%: protections for excluded workers

Once again, in some states, agricultural workers get short shrift on worker protections. Remarkably, 15 states say that workers’ compensation isn’t required for agricultural workers. Utah isn’t that bad, giving workers’ comp to the majority of agricultural employees, but there are exceptions. Utah also doesn’t have explicit protections for domestic workers, like some states do.

5%: heat protections

Some states have protections that dictate employers must look out for their outdoor workers in times of high heat by giving them water — California’s law says a quart per hour — and shade.

In addition, some states have laws about employee exposure to wildfire smoke. Oregon’s law, for instance, says employers must give their outdoor crews respirators when air quality metrics reach certain levels. Utah, despite all of the heat and smoke, doesn’t have these laws.

All in all, the Beehive State ranked 30th in worker protections. Here’s the full list:

Oxfam's rankings in the Worker Protections dimension. (https://webassets.oxfamamerica.org/media/documents/BSWI_2022_Report_Final.pdf)

Unlike the wages category we examined last week, I can’t say I have many complaints about the metrics Oxfam used. Personally, I don’t think it’s crazy to require employers to do some of these things. Frankly, they’re commonsense and fall well into the category of “Please just treat your employees like humans, for goodness’ sake.”

Unfortunately, Utah doesn’t have many of these commonsense protections — the state’s good with pregnancy protections and good with on-call workers, but that’s about it. This needs to change.

Rights to organize

Of course, state laws aren’t the only way for workers to get protections. Another is through collective bargaining. The remaining 25% of Oxfam’s ranking comes from these five categories:

5%: right to work

Some 27 states, including Utah, have right-to-work laws that dictate employees must have the right to choose whether they want to join a union. Research generally shows that states with right-to-work laws have lower unemployment but lower employee wages.

5%: right to organize for teachers

Some states require collective bargaining between teachers and districts if a majority of teachers vote for union representation. Other states say collective bargaining for teachers is expressly illegal. Utah (and a few other states) takes a middle road in which collective bargaining is permissible, but districts aren’t legally obligated to engage in bargaining.

5%: project labor agreements

Project labor agreements say that contracts for public construction projects go exclusively to unionized firms. Utah passed a bill in 1995 barring government-mandated PLAs. Some 23 other states have such laws.

5%: protection against retaliation

Most states protect their workers against corporate retaliation for reporting employer misconduct — in the form of wage theft, workers’ compensation, hiring practices, sexual harassment, you name it. Utah criminalizes this, too.

Some states have laws with more teeth. For example, Arizona, California, Florida, New York, Oregon and the District of Columbia provide workers with back pay, monetary damages, attorney fees, and the right to bring complaints to government agencies and to court if their companies engage in wage theft.

5%: collective bargaining

Some states have laws requiring collective bargaining for public-sector workers like firefighters and police; five states prohibit it. Utah is one of 15 states in the middle, permitting collective bargaining but not requiring it.

Overall, it’s hard to describe Utah as a union-friendly state, but it hasn’t outright prohibited union activities like a handful of other states. As a result, it ranks 44th in terms of workers’ rights to organize.

Oxfam's ranking of states in the Right To Organize dimension. (https://webassets.oxfamamerica.org/media/documents/BSWI_2022_Report_Final.pdf)

Oxfam’s metrics here can be a little unforgiving, but the laws it measures probably do give a reasonably accurate picture of union friendliness. If I were writing the report, I would have used a metric looking at how many workers were in a union in each state. Not that it would have changed things much for our state, though: Utah ranks 45th in the number of workers who belong to a union, just 4.4% of them.

So over these past two weeks, what have we learned?

Even with my quibbles about how it measures wages and unions, Oxfam’s work is reasonable. Yes, I suspect that a more representative look at the money Utahns make beyond the minimum wage would probably bump up the state a few slots in Oxfam’s rating, turning us from the 44th-ranked state to, say, 30th or so overall. But there’s no doubt that Utah lacks many commonsense protections for workers. Furthermore, those workers only rarely have the collective-bargaining power to win those protections in other ways.

And, frankly, Utah has significant enough structural advantages over other states — high education levels, relative youth, state coffers at solid levels and so on — that it should be able to ensure better conditions for workers than the average state.

When considering the topic, Salt Lake Tribune columnist George Pyle asked: Do states that are good for business have to be bad for workers? Like George, I don’t think so. We can, and should, make commonsense changes to help our bedrock workers survive and thrive in Utah.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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