New OK Policy paper examines how our state values work

The latest paper from the Oklahoma Policy Institute — Valuing Work — examines how well we value workers in Oklahoma by paying them a fair wage and offering necessary benefits like paid leave time. This is the second installment in The State of Work in Oklahoma, a three-part paper series from OK Policy that sheds light on those Oklahomans who have been left behind by the economic recovery. The first paper, Finding Work, explored the difficulty many Oklahomans encounter finding work. The third paper in this series will examine how the social safety net lessens poverty’s impact on working Oklahomans and families.

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Simply having a job is often not enough to keep a worker financially secure. For that, you need a good job — one that pays enough to live on with wages that increase enough to cover the gradual rises in the cost of living. Oklahoma doesn’t have enough good jobs. About one-quarter of Oklahoma jobs are low wage, and the state has not raised its minimum wage above the federal minimum to keep pace with rising costs of living.

A good job also provides benefits like affordable health insurance and paid time off to make sure workers are healthy and don’t face financial disaster if they fall ill or have a new child to care for. Unfortunately, only 52 percent of non-elderly Oklahomans have employer-provided health insurance. Further, the state does not require employers to offer paid sick leave or ensure that all workers have access to paid family and medical leave. Oklahoma needs more good jobs. Read the full report here.

Among the issues explored in this report are: 

  • The minimum wage is too low. The minimum wage has lost value over time and has been steadily decreasing since its inflation adjusted peak in 1968. The impacts of minimum wage disproportionately impacts women and people of color. More than half of the states have minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum wage; Oklahoma is not among those states. 
  • Oklahoma has a higher-than-average share of low-wage jobs. In 2018, one in four jobs in Oklahoma (26.2 percent) were in an occupation with a median wage below the poverty guideline for a family of four. Low-wage jobs are especially prevalent in certain occupational categories, including food service, personal care and service, childcare, and certain health care occupations. 
  • Low wage work is not enough to live on — even in a low-cost state like Oklahoma. The majority of minimum wage workers are 25 years of age or older – not teenagers and college students with part-time jobs. Some workers are trying to live and support family members on minimum wage jobs, and that’s not possible anywhere in the state on $7.25 an hour.
  • Workers without benefits face financial insecurity. Many workers currently lack access to paid leave time and struggle to afford to take time off to care for themselves and their families when needed. In addition, workers are paying more for their employer-provided health insurance, further stretching working families’ budgets.

The relationship between employers and their employees has been trending toward disconnect. In recent years the interests of consumers, communities, and workers have been sacrificed in order to maximize shareholder profit. During this period, wages stagnated, and for the lowest paid workers actually fell when adjusted for inflation. Existing benefit packages became more expensive for workers, and new benefits to allow workers to meet modern family obligations were not added. Working hard doesn’t always provide financial security – but it should.

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Oklahoma lawmakers and community leaders around the state have been calling for changes to state policies based on the many of the issues raised in this report. 

“How counterintuitive it is to talk about raising the level of the standard of living for Oklahomans, without taking into consideration the most vulnerable. A great start would be joining other progressive states and caring for our most vulnerable. Start with raising the minimum wage.”

-Sen. George E. Young, Sr., D-Oklahoma City

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“I believe it’s imperative that we help improve working conditions for Oklahomans. In my view, investing in the lives of Oklahomans is a nonpartisan issue, and we ought to do more as a state to help people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. That’s why I decided to file legislation to establish paid family leave and increase the gratuity minimum wage for Oklahomans working in the service industry. These policies can lead to more economic growth, better social outcomes, and improved mental health in Oklahoma.” 

-Rep. Daniel Pae, R-Lawton 

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“We are thankful to the Oklahoma Policy Institute for issuing this three-part series on the State of Work in Oklahoma. In addressing Oklahoma’s high rate of female incarceration, it is imperative that women be equipped with the tools and opportunities to earn a livable wage and reestablish themselves as productive members of the community. This is an impossibility on $7.25 an hour. As the Lead of Employment and Education at F&CS Women in Recovery (WIR), I have seen first-hand how critical it is for the women we serve to have the security of higher minimum wages, health insurance, and benefits. The absence of these entitlements, disproportionally affect women and their ability to provide for themselves and their families. Oklahoma MUST match other states who are moving the needle to provide their workforce with sustainable wages and benefits.”

-Mimi Tarrasch, Chief Program Officer, Family & Children’s Services’ Women in Recovery & Women’s Justice Programs   


Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

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