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Bill Seeks To Extend Unemployment Benefits To California’s Undocumented Workers

A farm field covered in water and mud, with cloudy skies above.
A Ventura County strawberry field that was flooded during recent storms, forcing a suspension of work.
(Courtesy of Jorge Toledano, Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project)
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California workers who don’t have legal immigration status or work permits are barred from unemployment benefits, even if they pay taxes.

A bill introduced Thursday in the state legislature proposes would create a program that would let those workers apply for unemployment if they lose their job, like many did during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Sponsored by State Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), the measure would extend unemployment benefit eligibility to as many as 1.1 million workers who don’t qualify due to immigration status, said Sasha Feldstein, economic justice director for the California Immigrant Policy Center, which backs the bill.

“These are workers who are working in industries that are essential and critical to the economy but were not eligible for unemployment benefits” during the pandemic shutdown, Feldstein said.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year, citing its cost as one reason. The new version doesn’t include a funding mechanism; backers say they hope the money could come out of the state’s general fund.

Behind On Rent And Going To Food Banks

Among those workers ineligible for unemployment during the shutdown was Cesar, a day laborer who lives in Highland Park. We’re not using his last name due to his immigration status.

“Many of our employers shut down their businesses, so logically we also didn’t have work,” said Cesar, whose work in construction and landscaping dried up. “There was nothing. There were weeks when there was nothing.”

His wife, who works as a housekeeper, also lost work during the shutdown.

‘We got behind on our rent, and later we had to ask for food at the food banks … it was very difficult,” Cesar said.

During the worst stretch, their only income came from a few of his wife’s longtime customers who paid her in spite of canceling their cleaning appointments.

In spite of the shutdown being long over, they are still in the process of catching up on bills, Cesar said.

Feldstein said the proposal would help workers in essential industries like warehousing, food service and farming, to name a few.

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An Estimated $350 Million Price Tag For The First Year

During the recent storms, as some California farm fields flooded, many immigrant farm workers were temporarily sent home without pay.

“These are all industries that our state relies on, and that our communities rely on, particularly in times of disaster to keep our economy and our state running,” Feldstein said.

According to the bill’s text, SB 227 would create a separate Excluded Workers Program, administered by the state Employment Development Department to provide unemployment assistance to workers who are left out of it now due to immigration status.

To qualify, people would need to meet several requirements, including establishing proof of their work history and California residence. If approved, they could obtain $300 per week of unemployment.

Backers of the bill and the state Employment Development Department estimate it would cost around $350 million to launch the program and pay the additional benefits for the first year, Feldstein said.

In his veto message after rejecting a similar bill last fall, Newsom cited budget concerns as one reason, writing that “this bill needs further work to address the operational issues and fiscal concerns, including a dedicated funding source for benefits.”

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