Capitol Alert

Striking California workers could collect unemployment on the picket line under proposed law

Dwane Moore, John Backman, Derek Moore and Ray MacNeil, left to right, stand outside a Vons supermarket on Stockdale Highway in Bakersfield, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 8, 2004, along with more than 50 Harley Davidson motorcycle riders to show their support for the supermarket strikers who have been on strike for four months against Safeway Inc., Kroger Co. and Albertsons Inc. (AP Photo/The Bakersfield Californian, Jenna Bowles)
Dwane Moore, John Backman, Derek Moore and Ray MacNeil, left to right, stand outside a Vons supermarket on Stockdale Highway in Bakersfield, Calif., Sunday, Feb. 8, 2004, along with more than 50 Harley Davidson motorcycle riders to show their support for the supermarket strikers who have been on strike for four months against Safeway Inc., Kroger Co. and Albertsons Inc. (AP Photo/The Bakersfield Californian, Jenna Bowles) AP

Striking workers would be eligible to collect unemployment under a proposal the Assembly passed Wednesday.

The bill would allow workers to collect unemployment benefits from weeks four through 26 of a prolonged strike. Unemployed workers can earn from $40 to $450 per week in unemployment benefits in California.

The bill is sponsored by Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, a former top regional official of the AFL-CIO, a nonprofit labor organization.

Gonzalez said the bill could help level the playing field in standoffs between striking workers and employers that are often better prepared for long labor disputes.

“You really realize the longer the strike goes, the more leverage the employer has,” Gonzalez said. “Workers sometimes have to agree to cuts to health care, to their retirement, just to insure they can put food on the table.”

The bill cleared the Assembly Tuesday despite opposition from nearly three dozen industry groups, ranging from grocers to hospitals, that branded the bill a job killer.

A Chamber of Commerce letter says the bill would fundamentally change unemployment insurance by offering it to employees who are not actively looking for work and who have a job waiting for them once the dispute is settled.

The letter raises concerns that the change could negatively affect the health of the state’s unemployment insurance fund, which became indebted to the federal government during the recession, by potentially adding thousands more people eligible for benefits.

And the letter says unemployment insurance premiums could rise across the state as insurers pay more claims.

Andrea Zinder, an Orange County secretary treasurer for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said strikes are a last resort for workers often struggling to make ends meet.

“I think UFCW and unions do everything short of calling a strike before it’s called. But as these corporations get bigger and bigger and are more interested in their shareholders than their employees, it’s always hovering over us that employers might put us in that unfortunate situation.”

She said the months-long labor dispute between 70,000 employees of grocery stores Ralph’s, Albertsons and Vons in Southern California in the winter of 2003-2004 was a good example of the kind of dispute that inspired the bill.

Gonzalez said the bill could have helped the roughly 2,500 Marriott Hotels and Resorts employees who went on strike for two months late last year in the Bay Area, eventually winning a more favorable contract.

Assembly Bill 1066 also clarifies workers are eligible for unemployment during lockouts, when companies tell employees to stop coming to work during labor disputes. Employees may become eligible for unemployment benefits one week after a lockout, the bill notes.

The change would apply to both private and public sector workers. The Assembly Appropriations Committee estimated the change could cost anywhere from $800,000 to $6 million per year, sayings its costs are “unknown and difficult to predict.”

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