California bill to provide unemployment insurance to striking workers heads to Senate – deadline

A bill that would The state Senate voted 4-1 on Wednesday to make striking California workers eligible for unemployment benefits. Committee on work, employment and pensions. Senate Bill 799, which has already passed the state Assembly, now goes to the full Senate for a vote. If it is approved there, it will be up to Gov. Gavin Newsom to either sign it into law or veto it. Last year, he vetoed 169 bills and signed nearly 1,000 into law.

The WGA has been on strike since May 2 and SAG-AFTRA has been on strike since July 14, but the bill would extend unemployment benefits to all striking workers in the state, not just writers and actors. In 2019, a similar bill failed in the Senate by just two votes. Strikers in New York and New Jersey are eligible to receive unemployment benefits after two weeks of picketing, but those in California are currently ineligible because they are considered “voluntary” leavers.

During today’s committee hearing, the bill received support from the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, Actors’ Equity and numerous unions across the state, who said unemployment benefits are a much-needed “safety net” for workers during strikes.

Watch the hearing here.

At today’s hearing, a WGA West representative read a statement in support of the bill from guild president Meredith Stiem, who told the Assembly Insurance Committee last month that “writers have had to rely on strike loans from our union, donations, philanthropy, and second and third jobs to pay for their basic needs from May 2. Four months without a job is emotionally brutal and financially disastrous. I am proud to report that our members have persevered and remained determined throughout this long, hot summer of work, but they are suffering.”

SAG-AFTRA Secretary-Treasurer Joely Fisher, who also testified last month in Sacramento, told the Assembly Insurance Committee that “denying striking workers access to the user interface is another way employers gain an unfair advantage over workers who are fighting for what is right. CEOs are playing the waiting game, knowing that workers living on the margins have rent to pay and groceries to buy. SB 799 gives workers a chance to fight for what’s just. We are fighting the fight of our lives – for our jobs, our industry, our future. We can’t wait any longer for the UI benefits that will help us survive and help all workers fighting for a better future.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, SB 799 was opposed by numerous employer groups, including the California Chamber of Commerce, whose representative called it a “job killer” that puts state resources on the side of striking unions. He also argued that the bill would likely increase unemployment insurance taxes on employers, 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 on over the next 10 years.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, whose member companies are on strike against the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, has not taken a position on the bill.

Sen. Dave Cortez, who chairs the committee, and Sen. Anthony Portantino, who authored the bill, acknowledged that the state unemployment insurance fund is underfunded, but noted that the money it pays out not only helps striking workers and their families, but also feeds back into local economies and businesses, including those opposed to the bill.

SB 799 also received the support of US House Speaker Emeritus Nancy Pelosi; Vice Governor Eleni Kounalakis; State Treasurer Fiona Ma; Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara; State Superintendent of Instruction Tony Thurmond; and US Senate candidates Adam Schiff, Kathy Porter and Barbara Lee.

At the end of today’s hearing, Cortes voted for the bill, along with fellow Democrats Maria Elena Duraz, John Laird and Lola Smallwood-Cuevas. Only Sen. Scott Wilk, a Republican who is the committee’s vice chairman, voted against it.

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