UPDATED: Bill to Give Jobless Benefits to Foreigners Prompts Debate over Cost, Equity

City News Service Pristine Villarreal

RIVERSIDE (CNS) – A bill seeking to provide unemployment benefits to non-citizens in California will ensure that “excluded workers” have access to compensation to which they’re entitled, according to a Riverside County lawmaker, while an opponent of the measure counters it will expand the state’s “failing unemployment insurance program” when there’s no money for it.

Senate Bill 227, the Excluded Workers Program, was ratified by the state Senate at the end of May and is now under consideration by the Assembly Committee on Insurance.

Sen. Maria Durazo, D-Los Angeles, authored the bill, saying “California’s economy suffers by excluding undocumented workers from the (unemployment insurance) program.”

“Immigrant workers make up a significant percentage of workers in many of the industries that experienced the highest rates of joblessness and low wages predating COVID-19,” Durazo wrote. “Without the support of essential safety net programs, like unemployment insurance, many immigrant families are forced to exhaust their savings … and compromise their health and safety to afford basic necessities.”

Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, is among the chief backers of SB 227.

“Access to unemployment benefits can make all the difference in a family affording rent and food to feed their children,” Garcia told City News Service. “Our immigrant communities are Californians, who contribute millions to our unemployment program and economy.”

SB 227 calls for providing up to $300 a week, for a maximum of 20 weeks, to those workers who cannot provide proof of U.S. citizenship, nor documentation establishing lawful residency, but can show that they were in the California labor market for a minimum of 93 hours in a given three-month period, receiving $5,200 in gross wages.

Applicants for benefits under the program could exercise a number of options to show they were employed, including wage statements, tax returns, direct deposit confirmation slips, parking receipts for a specific work site, supervisors’ testimonials, “emails, text messages, social media messages, or other written communications relating to delivery orders sheets (and) work schedules,” according to the legislation.

The bill would prohibit the Employment Development Department from inquiring about an applicant’s immigration status or retaining any records beyond the term required for the duration of benefits payments.

“California is a broke state with a $32 billion budget deficit,” Sen. Brian Jones, R-Escondido, leader of the California Senate Republican Caucus, told CNS. “On top of that, we already owe the federal government $17 billion in unemployment insurance debt from COVID. This disastrous new policy (SB 227) is ripe with loopholes for fraud.”

Members of the caucus include Sens. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Beaumont, and Kelly Seyarto, R-Murrieta. Bogh abstained from voting and declined to comment on the bill. Seyarto joined Jones in voting against it but did not respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, voted in favor but did not respond to requests for comment.

The bill dovetails with other “sanctuary state” measures intended to facilitate foreign nationals’ access to benefits administered by California agencies, including the California Food Assistance Program, the California Dream Act, Healthy California and some Medi-Cal provisions.

“This policy is not the message our state or country needs to be sending to those seeking to illegally enter,” Jones said. “We are essentially saying, `Come to California, get free money for not working.’ Now is not the time to further expand our failing unemployment insurance program. California is facing countless issues from homelessness to crime to affordability. We should be … using our precious tax-dollar resources for people lawfully in California.”

According to Garcia, the issue is not workers’ immigration status, but whether they should enjoy equal access to jobless benefits.

“These excluded workers deserve and have earned access to unemployment relief,” he said. “This measure is vital to ensuring the wellbeing of our entire economy. We are all impacted.”

Senate analyses of SB 227 did not address the potential for fraud and its costs. EDD disbursed an estimated $32 billion in response to fraudulent unemployment benefits claims during the COVID public health lockdowns, according to published reports.

The Excluded Workers Program is intended to run on a trial basis until Jan. 1, 2027. Annual administrative costs are projected to run between $40 million and $54 million, while payouts to claimants could reach $330 million annually, according to the EDD.

Copyright 2023, City News Service, Inc.

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