Thursday, September 28, 2023
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Striking workers closer to unemployment benefits in California

The bill's author said providing benefits to striking workers would ripple through their neighborhoods, helping small businesses they patronize.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — A bill that would make striking workers eligible for unemployment benefits is headed to the floor of the California Senate.

Senate Bill 799 — written by Senator Anthony Portantino, a Burbank Democrat — passed Wednesday morning out of the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee in a 4-1 vote.

It must pass the full Senate by Thursday to advance to Governor Gain Newsom, as both legislative chambers will adjourn for the year that day. Portantino’s office said it’s likely it’ll appear on Thursday’s Senate agenda.

Portantino said his bill would provide access to unemployment benefits to those involved in a trade dispute after two weeks off the job. New York and New Jersey already have similar laws in place.

From 2012 to 2022, at least 56 strikes occurred in California. Of those, two lasted over two weeks, both of which happened in 2022. This year, Writers Guild of America members have been on strike since May while Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists members have been on strike since July.

Striking workers still face bills and rent to pay. That affects not only families, but also the small businesses they frequent, Portantino said.

“Deciding to strike is not an easy one,” the senator said. “Folks have this romanticized image of a strike. There’s nothing romanticized about it.”

Patrick Henning, the state's chief deputy treasurer, said Treasurer Fiona Ma finds the bill reasonable and would help bring stability to communities.

“This little bit of money will go a long way, hopefully, to keeping people in the communities they come from,” Henning said.  

The California Chamber of Commerce has called the bill a “job killer.” According to the organization, workers choose to strike, which is different from someone finding themselves without a paycheck.

The chamber also has said the bill would create a significant tax increase on employers, including those with no involvement in labor disputes. Additionally, with fears of a future recession, the bill could worsen the unemployment fund’s solvency.

Katie Davey with the California Restaurant Association said restaurants have been hit hard with tax increases. Under this bill, they would have to subsidize striking workers while paying down unemployment insurance debt.

According to a bill analysis, California started borrowing from the federal government in June 2020 to maintain the solvency of the unemployment insurance fund. As of last month, the state’s loan balance was over $18 billion. It’s estimated that the loan could be paid off by 2032, though that doesn’t account for any changes that could impact the fund’s solvency or a future recession.

One-time costs are unknown but estimated in the low-to-mid six figures. Ongoing costs are expected in the low millions to tens of millions of dollars.

Portantino said the number of people affected by his bill is small when compared to the number of people who receive unemployment. He emphasized striking workers couldn’t access the benefits until two weeks have passed.

Concerning the fund’s solvency, Portantino said his bill provides an impetus to address it.

State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, said the bill wouldn’t settle the issue of the unemployment fund.

“Let’s not pretend that people are somehow going to get rich off of this,” she said.

State Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, also a Los Angeles-area Democrat, called the bill a short-term safety net that provides the chance to consider future long-term action.

Portantino said his bill would help people during a time when business models are changing.

“I think this is the right time to have that conversation,” he added.

Categories / Business, Economy, Employment, Government, Regional

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