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WGA and SAG-AFTRA leaders call on strikers to benefit from unemployment insurance

Members of the SAG-AFTRA Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America gathered Thursday morning for a protest outside Amazon Studios in Culver City. But their real target was hundreds of miles away, at the California state headquarters in Sacramento.

“We fight for the very soul of our industry; this is an existential crisis,” SAG-AFTRA Secretary-Treasurer Joely Fisher said from atop a podium displaying a sign that read “Unemployment Benefits for Striking Workers.” “Today we come together for a crucial piece of legislation.”

That measure, and the focal point of the event, was Senate Bill 799, which, if passed into law, would allow strikers to collect unemployment benefits after two weeks on strike. Unions support the bill, but it faces strong opposition from business groups, who say companies would end up paying higher taxes. The California Chamber of Commerce called the bill a job killer.

“Being unemployed is fundamentally different from being on strike,” House political advocate Robert Moutrie said in a statement last month. “SB 799 fundamentally changes the nature of (unemployment insurance) by providing unemployment benefits to workers who still have a job and who have chosen to temporarily refuse to work as a bargaining tactic.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major Hollywood studios in their negotiations with the two guilds, declined to comment on the bill. WGA members have been on strike since early May and SAG-AFTRA members walked off the job in mid-July.

The Times counted at least 100 attendees of the joint writer-actor event, many of whom held up black-and-red WGA signs or black-and-yellow SAG-AFTRA signs. A volunteer handed out additional placards specifically focused on increasing unemployment benefits.

“When you lose your job or are made redundant, you can apply for unemployment benefits,” said WGA West President Meredith Stiehm. “Strikers can’t do that in California. … This is something that would have helped us if we had implemented it earlier.

Workers often rely on a variety of options to pay their bills during a strike, including personal savings, side business, and strike funds, though programs such as the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Emergency Relief Program call for applicants with an urgent financial need.

Other speakers on Thursday included representatives of the Service Employees International Union, which brings together workers in the health and other sectors, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, an entertainment industry union made up of of crew below the line. Both said they stood in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA.

“For the first time since I can remember, workers are recognizing the dignity of others’ work and how someone else’s work brings value to their lives,” said the Federation president. from Los Angeles County Labor Yvonne Wheeler, another guest speaker. The approximately 800,000 members of the “Fed”, like Wheeler’s task force is known, we are “by your side and we support you”.

Companies pay state and federal payroll taxes on the first $7,000 of each employee’s annual salary to fund the unemployment insurance program. But those taxes weren’t enough to fund unemployment benefits, which amount to $450 a week for up to 26 weeks for Californians.

The state also borrowed $20 billion from the federal government in 2020 to fund unemployment claims. To repay this loan, employers would pay additional taxes.

“It’s time for California to catch up” on New York and New Jersey, WGA spokesman Bob Hopkinson said in an email. These states allow some striking workers to collect unemployment benefits. Other states are also considering the idea, although striking union members in most states are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

California introduced a bill in 2019 to allow strikers to collect unemployment benefits, but it failed in the Senate.

Writers and actors are not the only ones to benefit from this legislation. Southland workers have gone on strike in recent months, including public school workers, hotel employees And nurses.

Senate Bill 799, drafted by Sen. Anthony Portantino (Burbank Democrat), recently approved the Assembly Insurance Committee – with WGA and SAG-AFTRA executives present at the hearing of the panel — and on Thursday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee pushed ahead with the legislation after holding its own hearing. A representative of the WGA also testified at this hearing.

The cost to the state unemployment insurance fund is “probably in the millions to tens of millions of dollars” but is “difficult to predict” because it depends on factors such as how long strikes, according to the analysis of the bill by the credit committee.

The Plenary Assembly has not yet voted on the measure, which must also be approved by the Senate. State lawmakers must pass it, along with all other bills, by next Thursday, the last day of the 2023 legislative session.