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'I've Been Contributing': Undocumented Workers Are Key to California's Economy. A New Bill Would Give Them Unemployment Benefits

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People hold up a sign in front of the state Capitol that reads, "Include Immigrant Workers"
Hundreds of people converged at the California state Capitol in support of SB 227, a bill that would offer unemployment benefits to undocumented workers, on Thursday, April 13, 2023.  (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí/KQED)

Several hundred demonstrators from around California converged Thursday at the state’s Capitol in support of a bill that would offer income assistance to workers who are excluded from unemployment insurance benefits because of their immigration status.

The “Safety Net for All Day of Action,” as dubbed by organizers, comes a month after a disastrous flood submerged vast expanses of berry and lettuce farmlands on the Central Coast and left thousands of local agricultural workers — many of them undocumented — facing the prospect of no income for months.

As more natural disasters like this winter’s atmospheric-river fueled storms are expected to disrupt jobs, supporters of SB 227 say it’s urgent for the state of California to fund an economic safety net for laid-off undocumented residents — instead of leaving nonprofits scrambling after every emergency to offer cash aid.

A photo from behind of a group of people marching. A sign depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe is being held up. It says Salud y Justicia Para Todos, Safety Net for All
Advocates say it’s essential for California to fund a safety net program for undocumented workers, who play a key role in California’s agriculture, construction, retail trade and food services industries. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí/KQED)

“That’s just not a feasible solution, where we have over a million undocumented workers in the state,” said Kim Ouillette, attorney with Legal Aid at Work, an organization that is part of the Safety Net for All Coalition.

“Realizing that reality, it can’t just be left to piecework charity,” she said. “The state has an obligation to ensure that there’s a system in place that protects California workers that are major parts of significant industries.”

An estimated 1.1 million unauthorized immigrants labor in California, particularly in low-wage jobs in agriculture, construction, retail trade and food services. In agriculture, half of the state’s crop workforce lacks employment authorization, as estimated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

California’s unemployment insurance system is funded in part with dollars from the federal government (PDF), which renders unauthorized immigrants ineligible for those benefits. However, the employers of those immigrants pay tax contributions to that same system — hundreds of millions of dollars each year — on their behalf (PDF), according to estimates by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

A sign that says "Solo el Pueblo/Salva Al Pueblo"
Researchers say unauthorized immigrants pay significant state and local taxes annually. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí/KQED)

SB 227 would direct the Employment Development Department, or EDD, to create an “Excluded Workers Program” offering eligible individuals $300 dollars weekly for up to 20 weeks, with funds that would come from state coffers only.

Under the bill, California residents would be eligible for the benefits if they performed at least 93 hours of work or earned $1,300 or more in gross wages over the course of three months during the year before their application. That cash assistance would become available at the earliest by Jan. 1, 2025, and end by the start of 2027, according to the measure by Los Angeles state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo.

Advocates and workers pushing for the bill said they started organizing at the start of the pandemic, when the safety net gap became increasingly evident as undocumented residents in hard-hit industries lost income but were unable to access the unemployment benefits other workers had.

Three demonstrators, all wearing dark sweatshirts and face masks that obscure their faces, hold up a yellow sign with a bright, round insignia that says Mixteco/Indigeni Community Organizing Project, standing in the middle of a street with trees and high-rise buildings beyond them, on a blue-sky day.
Hundreds gathered at the California state Capitol in support of SB 227, a bill that would offer unemployment benefits to undocumented workers, on Thursday, April 13, 2023. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí/KQED)

“It’s not fair. I’ve been contributing to the state,” said Luis Mejia, who has worked in California for 13 years. “We need the governor to sign this law proposal.”

The 54-year-old car wash worker said losing his income for months during the pandemic — with no jobless benefits to rely on — was incredibly stressful. He fell hopelessly behind on rent and couldn’t send money to his two daughters in El Salvador.

“Those were moments that I would not wish on anyone else,” said Mejia, one of numerous Bay Area residents who woke up before dawn to ride a bus from San Francisco’s Civic Center to Sacramento with the organization Trabajadores Unidos Workers United. “That’s why I’m taking measures so that on this trip to Sacramento, we tell Mr. Gavin Newsom that we are here. We are still in this fight.”

Demonstrators hold up a sign in front of the California State Capitol
Under the bill, assistance for undocumented immigrants would begin Jan. 1, 2025. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí/KQED)

The Legislature passed a similar bill last year, but Gov. Newsom vetoed it (PDF), citing fiscal concerns. Those objections could be magnified this year, as the state faces a huge budget shortfall. While the administration projected the deficit at $22.5 billion, it could be about $7 billion larger, according to a report last month by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Still, supporters of SB 227, which has become a top issue for the California Latino Legislative Caucus, argue that it’s a question of basic equity and justice. Unauthorized immigrants pay significant state and local taxes annually, to the tune of $3.72 billion in 2019, researchers at the University of Southern California’s Equity Research Institute found.

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“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gómez Reyes at a budget subcommittee hearing on the proposal last month. “They have been paying into the system, their employers have been paying their part of it. Yet none of those workers receive any of the benefits.”

During the march near the Capitol, a crowd of hundreds of people who had traversed the state from the Coachella Valley, Fresno and other regions, filled the sidewalks. An accompanying band played corridos and cumbias.

“Although we don’t have documents, we have rights to demand something better for our community,” said marcher Ana Alfaro, a home cleaner from San Francisco who said she had to borrow money and rely on a food bank to feed her family as she lost several clients during the pandemic. “It’s so important that our undocumented community is not afraid and that we stand united.”

The bill’s supporters are requesting Newsom include $356 million for its implementation in his revised budget proposal next month. About $193 million of those funds would cover benefits for one year, while the rest would be for EDD expenses to get the program running, said Ouillette, with the Safety Net for All Coalition.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The California Taxpayers Association officially disapproved of the measure as of last month, arguing that the state’s unemployment system “does not have the financial ability to sustain any added benefits at this time.” But the association has since withdrawn its opposition, a spokesperson said, after clarifying the measure would not use money from the regular unemployment insurance fund.

Last year, EDD projected it would need up to $237 million in one-time general funds to build an excluded workers program, with most of that funding going to a new tech platform to distribute the cash assistance. Ongoing administration costs were estimated at less than $23.1 million per year, according to the agency.

The EDD is analyzing the potential price tag to implement the current bill, and does not have an updated estimate, an agency spokesperson told KQED.

Last year, Colorado became the first state to approve ongoing unemployment benefits for unauthorized workers. That state, with a significantly smaller population of undocumented residents, established a new fund using part of a tax already imposed on employers. Initial estimates pegged the cost of establishing a new program at $55 million, but the actual expenses will be “tens of millions” lower, as reported by Fast Company.

KQED’s Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí contributed to this report.

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