As Governor Newsom unveiled a sweeping new spending package to support Californians struggling from the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates called attention to the need to patch the largest gap in the state’s safety net: undocumented Californians excluded from unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.
While the Governor has provided some one-time payments to certain groups of immigrant families, including a small pool of first-come first-served individuals who received $500 checks, as well as $600-$1200 stimulus payments to undocumented workers who file federal income taxes using a taxpayer ID number (ITIN), many households have still not received any state or federal assistance due to their immigration status. These one-time payments are relatively small compared to the federal unemployment insurance that many immigrant workers are excluded from, which on average provided over $13,000 for Californians who lost work during the pandemic over the last year.
Under the Governor’s current proposal, undocumented individuals with an ITIN number would be eligible to receive another $500-$1,000 in additional funds, depending on whether they have qualified dependents.
“With a record $75 billion surplus, California can and must do more to remedy the unjust exclusion of undocumented people from our safety net,” said Maricela Morales, Executive Director of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE). “Even as we provide urgent assistance, we need solidarity, not just charity.”
After hunger strikes and protests by immigrant advocates, New York state recently created an Excluded Workers Fund for undocumented residents that dwarfs California’s efforts, offering up to $15,600 to provide a real safety net for workers who lost income during the pandemic but were excluded from federal unemployment benefits.
Immigrant advocates are calling for a similar fund to be created in California, providing up to the
$13,032 average unemployment benefit in wage replacement for excluded immigrant workers. The Safety Net for All Coalition and the Cal-EITC Coalition, representing immigrant worker and community advocates, are both calling for this $13,032 as wage replacement for undocumented workers who lost income during the pandemic, in addition to stimulus checks to fully fill the gap for immigrant households excluded from federal payments.
“Including all Californians regardless of immigration status in stimulus efforts is a step forward, but we need to talk about the elephant in the room,” said Jennifer Alejo, Co-Director of Trabajadores Unidos Workers United (TUWU). “Immigrant workers are among the hardest hit by pandemic job losses yet have been left out of any kind of wage replacement for unemployment.”
Immigrant workers have received public praise as “essential workers”, as undocumented Californians make up much of the workforce in the deadliest industries operating through the pandemic, such as line cooks, farmworkers, and warehouse workers, according to a recent UCSF study. Immigrants comprised the majority (58%) of pandemic-related worker deaths in California’s ten highest-risk industries according to a UC Merced study.
Yet many feel that immigrants’ key contributions as frontline essential workers during the pandemic–and their high rates of COVID-19 infection, suffering, and loss–have not been met with adequate aid.
“New York put their money where their mouth is to support immigrant essential workers,” said Sheheryar Kaoosji, Executive Director of Warehouse Workers Resource Center (WWRC). “It’s time for California to step up and fix this gap in our safety net.”
Governor Newsom’s spending package comes just in time to show his commitment to support working-class Californians struggling to pay for rent, groceries, and childcare during the pandemic, as a recall election looms later this year. Polling shows Newsom’s biggest weakness is among Latino voters, who have been hard-hit by both COVID-19 deaths and job losses.
While the Governor earned praise for including some immigrant families in one-time stimulus funds and tax credits, he has a more mixed record when it comes to addressing systemic inequities facing immigrant workers and families. Last year, Newsom vetoed high priority bills extending more workplace rights to heavily immigrant workforces including domestic workers, hotel workers, and farmworkers, and declined to fund broader immigrant inclusion in the safety net such as health insurance and unemployment benefits for undocumented Californians proposed by some legislators.
This year he is working to shore up support among Latino voters and immigrant worker advocates, including last month signing the “right to return” bill for hotel workers he voted last year.
“The average Californian who lost their job in the pandemic received over $13,000 in unemployment benefits,” said Dana Hadl, Directing Attorney at Bet Tzedek. “But too many of the people who harvest Fresno’s fields, serve Silicon Valley’s skyscrapers, and clean Hollywood’s hotels got nothing because of their immigration status. We’ve got to fix our safety net so everyone is protected in times of crisis.”
The Safety Net for All Coalition is an alliance of immigrant worker advocates in California working to end the exclusion of undocumented workers from unemployment protections