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Striking Worker Jobless Benefits Bill Advances in California

A measure that would give striking workers in California eligibility for unemployment benefits was approved Thursday by a key legislative committee.

State law currently excludes workers from unemployment insurance if they are out of work due to a strike. Amid a summer of labor unrest across California, lawmakers and labor unions are making a last-minute push for a bill (S.B. 799) that would grant unemployment benefits to workers on strike for more than two weeks, starting next year.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee advanced the bill along party lines Thursday, with all Republicans opposed. The bill heads next to a vote of the full Assembly, likely next week before the legislature adjourns for the year on Sept. 14.

While backers argue the measure would be a lifeline to workers and their communities caught up in protracted labor disputes, several lawmakers—including some Democrats—raised concerns about the bill’s potential to further strain California’s deeply indebted unemployment insurance fund.

“Just because it’s already in the negative doesn’t mean we should automatically continue to pull from it,” said Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D).

Cost Concerns

California’s unemployment insurance program is about $18.3 billion in debt to the federal government due to loans California took to pay benefits during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bill’s supporters note the number of striking workers who would likely file for unemployment insurance each year is a fraction of the number who typically apply due to normal circumstances.

“We are not talking about a significant hit to the fund but a significant benefit to the worker,” said Sen. Anthony Portantino (D), the bill’s author.

An analysis by the Assembly Appropriations Committee suggested the annual cost to the state’s unemployment insurance system could total millions or tens of millions a year. The analysis noted the total cost is difficult to estimate because it depends on the number, size, and duration of strikes.

There were at least 56 strikes in California from 2012 to 2022, with only two strikes lasting over two weeks, the committee’s analysis found. The writers and actors strike in the state has already lasted for months.

Two other states allow striking workers to draw unemployment benefits—New York and New Jersey.

The New York State Department of Labor said an average of 3,000 striking workers per year have received unemployment insurance benefits over the last 10 years. The department added that annual counts vary significantly, from a low of about 1,000 workers to a high of about 8,000 workers.

Industry groups contend that further debt for California’s unemployment insurance fund will be an added burden on businesses, which will have to repay the debt through higher taxes.

“Raiding a broke state unemployment insurance trust fund by allowing workers who elect to go out on strike—not workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own—just to make points with a few labor unions is one of the biggest derelictions of public policy duties elected officials are entrusted to uphold,” John Kabateck, California state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement.

Frustration With Studios

The California legislature rejected a similar bill in 2019. Supporters now argue major strikes this year—particularly in the film, television and hotel industries—force them to act to address both the economic hardship faced by workers in their districts and the broader ramifications for California’s economy.

Several lawmakers representing the Los Angeles area, where strikes by writers and actors have upended the entertainment industry, raised concerns that constituents are relying on loans, second jobs and philanthropy to make ends meet during the labor dispute.

“We would not be in this situation if there were good faith negotiations taking place,” said Assembly Majority Leader Isaac Bryan (D), who represents part of the Los Angeles area, including several major film and television studios.

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