California Senate Passes Bill To Give Striking Workers Access To Unemployment Insurance; Now It’s Up To Gov. Newsom

A bill that would make striking workers in California eligible to receive up to $450 a week in unemployment insurance benefits passed in the state Senate on Thursday by a vote of 27-12. Senate Bill 799, which passed in the state Assembly last month, now heads to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who can either sign it into law or veto it.

His signature, however, is by no means certain. Last year, he vetoed 169 bills while signing nearly 1,000. In 2019, a similar bill failed in the Senate by just two votes.

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Striking workers in New York and New Jersey are entitled to collect unemployment benefits after two weeks on the picket line, but those in California currently aren’t eligible because they’re considered to have left their jobs “voluntarily.”

Senate Bill 799 would change that. It has received support from numerous unions and labor organizations across the state, including the Writers Guild, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, Actors’ Equity, the California Labor Federation and AFL-CIO. Supporters say that if enacted, it will provide a much-needed “safety net” for striking workers and their families.

WGA West President Meredith Stiehm and SAG-AFTRA Secretary-Treasurer Joely Fisher both testified in Sacramento last month in favor of the bill. The WGA has been on strike since May 2, and SAG-AFTRA since July 14.

“The UI system was intended to provide a temporary safety net for workers who lose their jobs,” Alex Aguilar, business manager for Laborers Local 724 and a member of the Coalition’s board, said after the Senate vote. “If not applied to striking workers, it makes employers threats all the more potent and provides employers with an advantage against the interests of workers, their families, their unions and their communities. Today the California Legislature took an important step to redress that imbalance.”

Actors’ Equity joined the chorus applauding the bill’s passage and urged Gov. Newsom “to sign it into law as soon as possible.”

“As workers continue to stand in solidarity to win better, fairer contracts, this measure will aid everyone who needs to pay bills and buy groceries while they are on strike,” said Equity President Kate Shindle. “It provides the middle-class members of the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, UNITE HERE and others some meaningful relief as they hold the line against their employers, who deploy nearly unlimited resources to try to break them. We’re so grateful to Senator Anthony Portantino and former Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez for their bold leadership in putting this bill forward. While we applaud California for authorizing this labor protection, there are still 47 states where it doesn’t exist. We hope that elected leaders across the country consider workers in their own states and follow suit.”

SB 799 was co-authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino, Sen. Maria Elena Durazo and Assemblyman Chris Holden.

“SB 799 is the right bill for California workers,” Stiehm said following its passage in the Senate. “Striking can be long and uncertain, and this bill addresses the most basic need to make ends meet. We would like to thank Senator Portantino for his leadership on this bill and the California Legislature for doing the right thing.”

“Today, the Legislature responded to this rare moment in time when workers from many different business segments are striking for their future livelihood,” Portantino said today. “From writers and actors to nurses and public workers, we see significant unrest and concern in the workforce across the state. Sacramento’s action sends a strong message to the women and men on strike that we recognize the impact that strikes have on a family’s ability to pay rent and put food on a table. I am grateful to the labor advocates who have worked tirelessly on this effort and appreciate those on the picket line during this hot labor summer.”

“Today’s vote was a victory for the writers, the actors, the hotel workers, the autoworkers, the nurses and every worker who has made the difficult sacrifice to go out on strike for a better future,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, leader of the California Labor Federation. “Working people earned these benefits and they deserve to access them during hard times. SB 799 can ensure that workers in the future can survive a strike with dignity.”

The California Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the bill, described it as “a job killer” that puts the state’s resources on the side of striking unions. It also claims that the bill likely would lead to increased unemployment insurance taxes on employers, while noting that the state’s unemployment insurance fund is already $18 billion in debt and that the bill would add about $2 billion to that debt over the next 10 years.

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