Striking workers need unemployment pay — and fast, this lawmaker says

California, the most populous U.S. state and home to some of the highest-profile strikes so far this year, should provide more financial help to striking workers, a state lawmaker says.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Democrat, plans to introduce a bill next week that would make striking workers eligible for unemployment benefits. It’s a last-minute effort with only about a month to go in the legislative session, but the senator said this week there’s no time to waste because some striking workers need help now.

“In California in particular, we have writers on strike; hotel workers on strike,” Portantino, who represents the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, said in an interview with MarketWatch.

Actors are also still on strike. Recently, Los Angeles city workers walked off their jobs for a day.

“There’s lots of unrest in the workforce … and companies and workers need to sit down and figure it out,” the senator said. “By giving the workforce [financial] stability, you’re going to give them the ability to have healthy negotiations that meet the moment.”

See: What striking city workers have in common with striking Hollywood actors — and what they don’t

If the bill passes and the governor signs it, California would join two other states that provide unemployment pay to striking workers: New York, the first state to do so, has offered the benefit since 2020. New Jersey’s governor signed similar legislation into law this year, but the effective date was backdated to 2022. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Massachusetts and Connecticut are trying to pass the same type of bills.

There have been more than 230 strikes around the country so far this year, according to the Labor Action Tracker report from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

‘Striking workers have earned their unemployment-insurance benefits. They deserve to use them when they are unable to work.’

— Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation

Unemployment benefits for striking workers can “shift the burden from unions,” said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit. Union members receive a percentage of their regular wages from their unions’ strike funds when they walk off the job, and unemployment benefits would supplement that money.

“It could [help to] equalize the power of both parties,” Masters said, referring to unions and companies, though he added that could really only happen to a certain degree because companies have more money than unions.

After a recent Politico report on the possibility of the bill’s introduction, California’s chamber of commerce slammed the idea, pointing to the fact that the state’s unemployment system is about $19 billion in debt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is irresponsible and unfair to increase taxes on every California employer, including those without any involvement in any strikes, to subsidize the striking workers in other industries,” Robert Moutrie, a policy advocate for CalChamber, said in a statement.

Portantino said California’s goal should be to “solve both problems”: labor issues and the unemployment-insurance fund’s solvency.

The California Labor Federation, whose current leader is a former California lawmaker who proposed similar legislation in 2019, backs the bill.

“Striking workers have earned their unemployment-insurance benefits,” Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, the chief officer and executive secretary-treasurer of the group, which has more than 1,000 affiliated unions, said in a statement to MarketWatch. “They deserve to use them when they are unable to work.”

“We can’t have workers economically insecure because they’re forced to go out on strike,” the former assemblywoman added. “It harms them and their families and has rippling effects on the entire community.”

The last time the bill was proposed, it fell two votes short, Portantino said.

“It’s a different time now,” he said, referring to what he called a real shift in the economy in the past few decades, including wage stagnation and weaker worker protections. “I think we will have those two votes.”

Read more: Actors, writers, hotel housekeepers and grad-student workers are all striking for the same reason

Unions for current striking California-based workers, such as actors, entertainment writers and hotel workers, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Efforts at the federal level to help striking workers include legislation introduced earlier this year by Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and three of his fellow Democratic lawmakers, which would ban employers from terminating workers’ healthcare benefits during strikes. The Striking and Locked Out Workers Healthcare Protection Act was referred to committee for further study.

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