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California Plan Allows Undocumented Workers Jobless Benefits

The proposal would allocate $6.9 million to create the Excluded Workers Pilot Program, which would provide unemployment funds to undocumented workers who have been laid off or had a reduction in hours.

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Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat who represents the 56th Assembly District, in front of a mural in downtown Coachella, Calif., at dusk on February 14, 2020. Garcia authored the Excluded Workers Pilot Program plan. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Allen J. Schaben/TNS
(TNS) — Millions of undocumented immigrants living in California could soon be eligible for unemployment insurance under a new proposal that advocates say would provide much-needed assistance to a workforce often excluded from social safety net programs.

The plan, authored by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, D- Coachella, would allocate $6.9 million to create the Excluded Workers Pilot Program, a two-year program that would provide funds to undocumented workers who've lost their job or had their hours reduced. The bill, AB 2847, allows qualifying, unemployed individuals to receive up to $300 a week for 20 weeks.

As of now, unemployment benefits, which are distributed by the state's Employment Development Department, are only available to individuals who are legally allowed to work in the U.S. and were fully or partially unemployed due to a layoff, furlough, reduced wages, or reduced hours. The pilot program is separate from the state agency but would guarantee unemployment funds to undocumented individuals who become unemployed for the same reasons.

If approved, the program would go into effect from Jan. 1, 2023, until Jan. 1, 2025.

"The bill certainly stems from seeing how people were impacted by this pandemic," Garcia told The Bee in a March 1 interview. "These are our neighbors, friends, relatives, and people that are around us that we are unaware are here without legal status. We want to make sure that these individuals and their families do not suffer dire consequences."

Garcia said the pandemic hit California's undocumented workers hard, but many were forced to use their savings or risked falling into severe poverty because they did not qualify for many state and federal benefits. He said the state's undocumented workers should be entitled to unemployment benefits because they pay taxes and contribute to the state's economy.

California would become the third state, following Colorado and New York, to implement a program that provides temporary wage replacement to undocumented workers who were affected by the pandemic.

"This proposal is critical and fundamental to what everything that California stands for," Garcia added.

Sasha Feldstein, the director of economic policy at the California Immigrant Policy Center, said the proposal is the latest effort to remove barriers for undocumented residents to access public benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated many of the hardships that undocumented immigrants already face, including housing and food insecurity, she added.

"We all knew that in the pandemic, low-income immigrant workers were going to be the hardest hit with the least support and financial relief," said Feldstein. "So, over the past two years, we've been calling for a better, stronger safety net that would include all Californians and all workers."

California is home to 2 million undocumented immigrants, including more than 1.1 million workers, according to a December 2021 analysis from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

Many of these workers are more likely to experience lower wages and greater financial insecurity than those legally allowed to work in the U.S. At least 38% of California's undocumented workers live in households that earn less than a living wage, according to the study.

Feldstein said unemployment assistance has been crucial in helping low-income families stay afloat during the pandemic. She hopes the proposal will help undocumented workers who didn't qualify for state and government funds such as federal stimulus checks or pandemic unemployment assistance and help families stay financially afloat in the event of a future crisis.

"Unemployment assistance is what really allowed people to survive," she said. "We know that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first nor will it be the last emergency or crisis that's going to put thousands of Californians out of work with no financial recourse."

An estimated 852,065 immigrants lost their jobs when the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020, including 357,867 undocumented workers, according to a separate June 2020 policy report from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

From 2019 to 2020, the median amount of time an undocumented worker would stay unemployed hovered around 20 weeks, the Dec. 2021 analysis showed.

Edward Flores, an assistant professor of sociology and the co-director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, said low-wage workers in industries like agriculture, food processing, forestry, landscaping, and construction could benefit most from the pilot program.

Many workers in these industries, like farmworkers, also experience hazards such as wildfire smoke, and heat while working, which could jeopardize their health or safety. Unemployment insurance could provide a financial cushion for many undocumented workers who are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak out against these poor conditions, he said.

"Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, issues that undocumented workers have been facing for a long time really came to light in a way that wouldn't have had there not been such a major public disaster," he said. "This bill helps workers who have lost their jobs to have some amount of financial relief, but also those who are afraid of losing their jobs."

Julieta Fuentes is an undocumented immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, and a mother of two children who has lived in Riverside County for the past 18 years. The 52-year-old lost her job at a retail warehouse in September 2021 after contracting COVID-19. She hasn't been able to return to work and said it's been difficult keeping up with bills and making rent.

Fuentes relies on her husband, who works in construction, and on relatives to help make ends meet. She also receives food from a local food bank. But she worries about the debt she keeps racking up from borrowing money from family and friends, she said.

"It's emotionally draining, she said in Spanish. "We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, if we are going to have a roof over our heads, or if we are going to have enough food. They help you at the food banks, but they do not give you everything you need."

Fuentes supports Garcia's bill and hopes that it will help provide financial relief to struggling immigrant families like hers.

"We pay taxes, we contribute, we are part of the community," she said. "There are many challenges that we have faced. But the lack of unemployment, more than anything, has left us with a lot of financial stress. This bill would provide an unemployment benefits system for us that would help us so, so much."

(c)2022 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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