WGA and SAG-AFTRA Push for Unemployment Benefits for Striking Workers

The Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA are pushing California lawmakers to grant unemployment benefits to striking workers.

In California, workers currently do not receive unemployment pay when they are on strike. But state lawmakers are working on a bill, SB 799, that would extend benefits to workers who have been on strike for at least two weeks.

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If signed into law, the bill would go into effect on Jan. 1. If the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are resolved by then, the bill would not have any effect on those union members. But it could play a role in future strikes, both in Hollywood and in other industries.

Unions are lining up in support of the bill, while the business groups have opposed it.

Sen. Anthony Portantino, the lead author, argued in an interview that the bill will help the economy and extend security to workers, while leveling the playing field between labor and management.

“The point is to bring certainty to the workforce,” he said. “The total economic hardship should not create an uneven playing field.”

The Hollywood unions held a rally on Thursday outside Amazon in Culver City to express support for the bill. They noted that New York and New Jersey already extend unemployment benefits to workers on strike.

“Four months without work is emotionally brutal and financially disastrous,” said Meredith Stiehm, the president of WGA West. “The companies of course know this and have preyed upon our members’ economic insecurity and personal anxiety.”

Kayla Westergard-Dobson, a WGA lot coordinator at Sony, argued that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers refused to negotiate a fair contract, forcing members to go on strike.

“Even though we’re unemployed, none of us can access unemployment,” she said. “We’re almost 130 days into this and I’m going broke. My savings have dwindled down to almost nothing. I’m relying on financial help from my family and visiting food banks to get groceries.”

She said that she had previously been able to get unemployment while on hiatus between writing jobs.

“This insurance is supposed to be there for us when we cannot work,” she said. “How does it make any sense that we don’t have access now when we need it the most? If I could get employment during this work stoppage, just like any other hiatus or time spent being jobless, the stress of the strike would not weigh so heavily. I wouldn’t have to put off going to the dentist, taking my cat to the vet or even just getting a haircut. I wouldn’t have to watch my savings bottom out while still needing to make rent.”

The AMPTP declined to comment. The Motion Picture Association, which represents the studios’ interests in Sacramento, referred questions to the California Chamber of Commerce.

At a hearing last week, a Chamber representative argued that the bill could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts to striking workers.

The representative, Robert Moutrie, argued that would put further pressure on the state’s unemployment program, which already owes the federal government more than $18 billion due to the pandemic, and would force California businesses as a whole to pick up the tab in the form of higher premiums.

Moutrie stated that striking workers are also in a different situation than workers who get benefits because they were laid off.

“Someone who is on strike has a job and is choosing not to work to create economic pressure on their employer,” Moutrie said. “That is fundamentally different than someone who is let go and has no idea when or if they will work again.”

According to an analysis from the Assembly staff, there were 56 strikes in California between 2012 and 2022, only two of which lasted longer than two weeks.

The SAG-AFTRA began on July 14 and is now eight weeks old, while the WGA strike is in its 19th week.

The bill passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday, and must pass both houses of the Legislature by Sept. 14.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has not indicated whether he would sign it into law.

A similar bill, which would have granted unemployment benefits after three weeks on strike, passed in the Assembly in 2019 but fell two votes short of passage in the state Senate.

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