Bills of 2023 | Newsom vetoes bill that would give jobless benefits to striking workers

Screen Actors Guild members and Writers Guild of America members picket at the Amazon Culver Studios in Culver City on June 17, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters
Screen Actors Guild members and Writers Guild of America members picket at the Amazon Culver Studios in Culver City on June 17, 2023. Photo by Julie A Hotz for CalMatters

Editor’s note: As 2023 draws to a close, The Signal is presenting CalMatters’ wrap-up stories on some of the key bills that reached the governor’s desk at the close of the 2023 legislative session. Here’s the CalMatters summary of a bill that would have given unemployment benefits to striking workers. 

By Felicia Mello  
CalMatters Writer 

California’s hot labor summer helped inspire this last-minute effort to allow striking workers to collect unemployment benefits: Under Senate Bill 799, workers who have been on strike for at least two weeks could receive funds.  

New York and New Jersey have passed similar laws, but California now bars people who voluntarily leave work due to a “trade dispute” from getting unemployment benefits, which are funded by a payroll tax on businesses.   

Who Supports It 

The California Labor Federation says without the bill, employers can just wait out a strike, hoping financial desperation will cause workers to give up. A slew of unions support the legislation, including Unite Here, the Writers Guild of America West and the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.  

Who Is Opposed 

The California Chamber of Commerce says the bill risks raising taxes on all California employers, whether their employees are on strike or not. Also joining the opposition: employer groups representing small businesses, the restaurant industry, farms, banks, school administrators and more.  

Why It Matters 

More than 275,000 workers have gone on strike in California this year, according to Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker — though only about a dozen of those work stoppages lasted more than two weeks. Unemployment payments would have boosted the bank accounts of Hollywood screenwriters who went on strike in May, along with actors and hotel workers who walked out in July.  

California’s cost of living has skyrocketed in recent years due to inflation and a hot housing market, making it harder for strikers to pay bills. The legislation also comes as the state’s Employment Development Department is struggling to fulfill its existing responsibilities and is still paying back the federal government for money it borrowed during the pandemic.  

The bill’s author, Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Glendale Democrat, told a Los Angeles newspaper the state’s unemployment fund could be bolstered by raising the amount of wages subject to payroll taxes from the current annual ceiling of $7,000.  

The Governor’s Call 

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sept. 30 that he vetoed the bill. He said that any expansion of eligibility for unemployment benefits could increase California’s outstanding federal debt, projected at nearly $20 billion, and could lead to increased taxes on employers.  

“Furthermore, the state is responsible for the interest payments on the federal UI loan and to date has paid $362.7 million in interest with another $302 million due this month,” he said in his veto message. “Now is not the time to increase costs or incur this sizable debt.”  

But he also said: “I have deep appreciation and respect for workers who fight for their rights and come together in collective action. I look forward to building on the progress we have made over the past five years to improve conditions for all workers in California.”  

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