DENISE AMOS AND FELICIA MELLO
Oct 1, 2023
Striking workers would have been eligible to collect California unemployment benefits under a bill that Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed. He said it's a cost the state cannot afford to bear right now. Photo by David Swanson, Reuters
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Supporters who celebrated as Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a fast food bill Thursday bemoaned his decisions Saturday night when he announced he had vetoed two other high-profile labor bills.
Newsom rejected Senate Bill 799, which would have paid striking workers California unemployment benefits after two weeks, and SB 686, which would have extended workplace safety protections to domestic workers, such as housekeepers and nannies.
Both bills are among several labor-backed measures that prompted public rallies and won approval from the Democratic-controlled Legislature, as thousands of Californians — including hotel workers and Hollywood actors — walked picket lines this year.
Unions are often major financial supporters of Democrats and of Newsom’s political campaigns. In 2021, during the failed attempt to recall Newsom, unions gave at least $23.6 million to defend him.
“The governor’s veto was the right thing to do, but it only hits the pause button on a crisis that needs to stop.”JOHN KABATECK, THE NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESS
After Newsom’s announcement, labor leaders vowed to keep fighting for the unemployment measure. Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who heads the California Labor Federation, said it’s a top priority for the entire labor movement.
“This veto tips the scales further in favor of corporations and CEOs and punishes workers who exercise their fundamental right to strike,” she wrote in a statement. “At a time when public support of unions and strikes are at an all-time high, this veto is out-of-step with American values.”
Later she posted on X, formerly Twitter: “Good thing we believe in second chances, because we will put this back on your desk next year @GavinNewsom and every year after if necessary. Workers deserve better.”
From cheers to disappointment
That sentiment was a far cry from the accolades and appreciation Newsom received from workers and union leaders Thursday, when Newsom signed another high-profile labor bill that will raise fast food wages to at least $20 an hour next April and give workers seats on a new restaurant industry council to set pay standards and influence workplace conditions.
The press conference, held at a union headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, featured ecstatic worker testimonies, a mariachi band and on-camera cheers as Newsom signed what many called landmark legislation.
Newsom’s actions Saturday evening were decidedly quieter. There was no press conference when his office released a list of 34 bills he signed and, at the bottom, included five bills he vetoed, including the unemployment measure and the domestic worker bill.
“I am deeply disappointed that the Governor doesn’t recognize the inherent worth and dignity of those women who care for our homes and families.”STATE SEN. MARÍA ELENA DURAZO, DEMOCRAT FROM LOS ANGELES
Newsom said in a veto message that he rejected giving California unemployment checks to strikers because it would have cost too much, given the state’s already debt-riddenunemployment insurance trust fund that struggles to fulfill existing responsibilities while owing the federal government $18.5 billion.
That debt would have grown to $20 billion by the end of the year, Newsom said. Also the state, which has paid $362.7 million in interest on that debt, has to make another $302 million interest payment this month.
“Now is not the time to increase costs or incur this sizable debt,” he wrote.
California unemployment benefits battle
Workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own can receive California unemployment benefits. Employers fund it by contributing to the state trust fund on behalf of each employee. Newsom said the trust fund’s financing structure hasn’t been updated since 1984, which has made it “vulnerable to insolvency.”
Business groups strongly opposed the bill, noting it would have required companies to essentially pay for strikes.
Gonzalez Fletcher, of the Labor Federation, tweeted that the bill would have allowed striking workers to tap unemployment benefits they had already earned.
The California Chamber of Commerce tweeted their thanks to Newsom for “hearing the concerns of CA employers about (unemployment insurance) insolvency.”
John Kabateck, California state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, complained that the bill was a last-minute substitution from a labor-influenced Legislature.
“A last-minute, gut-and-amend bill allowing little time for legislative scrutiny and public input, it was shamelessly hijacked and rushed to passage to score political points with striking Hollywood writers and actors,” he said. “The governor’s veto was the right thing to do, but it only hits the pause button on a crisis that needs to stop.”
State Sen. Anthony Portantino, the Burbank Democrat who authored the bill, posted on social media that he was disappointed by the veto, but “the need continues and so will efforts to make this law in CA.”
Domestic work without safety rules
Another labor measure Newsom blocked Saturday would have removed an exemption of domestic workers from Cal/OSHA’s workplace health and safety rules. The bill would have required anyone employing household workers to comply with the same health and safety rules as businesses by January 2025.
Newsom said, under the bill, if an employer-family broke a workplace safety rule, they could face the same penalties as businesses, as much as $15,000 per violation. He added that 44% of households that employ domestic workers are low-income.
“New laws in this area must recognize that private households and families cannot be regulated in the exact same manner as traditional businesses,” he wrote in his veto message.
The bill, he said, didn’t spell out the standards employers must follow and a system for investigating and enforcing those standards.
Supporters of the measure have said the exemption of domestic workers from safety and health protections began with slavery and persists thanks to sexism and racism. They also note that three quarters of California’s 300,000 or so domestic workers are immigrant women of color.
“We expected more from this Governor. Domestic workers deserve more,” said Kimberly Alvarenga, Director of the California Domestic Workers Coalition, in a statement.
“We will not back down from this fight. We are proud to stand with domestic workers, employers and leaders across this nation who understand it is long past time to act on this historic wrong. We continue the legacy of the generations of women of color before us who have fought for equality and dignity for their labor.”
During California’s wildfires, some household workers were asked to stay and guard possessions, take care of pets, work in smoky conditions and clean up toxic ash, a bill analysis said. It added, some workers were not informed when the home they worked in was in an evacuation area.
State Sen. María Elena Durazo, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored the bill, said in a tweet “I am deeply disappointed that the Governor doesn’t recognize the inherent worth and dignity of those women who care for our homes and families.”
Progress on safety
In 2020, Newsom vetoed a similar measure. Since then a statewide advisory committee has created voluntary work safety standards and recommended that domestic workers be included in Cal/OSHA rules.
Newsom said the committee also discussed giving domestic employers opportunities to learn about and correct violations before formal enforcement occurs.
In a related development, unions representing retail and grocery workers were able to score a victory for workplace safety.
Newsom signed a bill that will require employers implement “basic protections” to help shield workers from violence on the job, including developing a workplace violence prevention plan, logging any violent incidents and providing workplace violence prevention training, said the The United Food and Commercial Workers Western States Council.
The union’s statement said most of its members have been victims of workplace violence or the threat of it.
“Members have been robbed at gunpoint; they’ve been attacked physically, some to the point of needing to be hospitalized; they’ve been spat upon by people infected with COVID-19; they are routinely threatened with violence; and at some stores, members have even been murdered while performing their jobs,” the union said.
John Frahm, acting president of the UFCW Local 5, said the bill will have an “extraordinary impact” on workers’ lives.
“UFCW members have had to deal with six years of deadly and traumatizing incidents” he said. “This is simply too long when our members go to work every single day worried about if they will come home at night to their families.”
Newsom has been working through about 900 bills and has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto them. The Legislature could override a veto, but it takes two-thirds majorities in both the Assembly and Senate.
This story was updated to include reaction from the California Domestic Workers Coalition.