September 28, 2023

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. 

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.”

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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