California workers may soon have a better incentive to strike over issues like pay, benefits, and working conditions. Senate Bill 799 would allow striking workers to collect unemployment benefits after being on strike for two weeks.
The author of the bill, State Senator Anthony Portantino, explains on his website that the right to strike to improve working conditions, wages, and address other issues in collective bargaining is codified in law for workers in the public and private sector. However, the decision to go on strike means that workers lose all income, deplete their savings, rent and mortgages go unpaid, and debt accumulates. Existing law and case history currently prohibits striking workers—and some locked out workers—from being eligible for UI benefits. This prohibition is a major obstacle to workers fighting to improve their wages and working conditions against employers who refuse to reach agreement.
Lorena Gonzalez, the California Labor Federation’s chief officer, proposed a similar measure in 2019 when she was a state lawmaker. Since that time, more lawmakers have come to agree with her arguments for making unemployment benefits available to striking workers. “We know that this money will be turned around and used for rent, for food, for transportation,” she said. “Not having that money circulating in the community hurts the community.” Extending unemployment benefits, up to $450 per week, to striking workers is a way to ensure that they do not become homeless or require public assistance while employers wait them out.
With an opposing opinion, California Chamber of Congress expects that paying striking workers unemployment benefits would unfairly penalize struggling employers with higher payroll taxes. They refer to the currently insolvent state employment insurance fund which required $20 billion in federal loans during the pandemic.
Senator Portantino points out an increase on payroll taxes could be part of a broader discussion about making the state unemployment insurance fund sustainable.