California Should Fix Unemployment Insurance to Include Presently Excluded Immigrant Workers

Governor Gavin Newsom should ensure that California provides economic support to workers facing unemployment, regardless of immigration status.

Right now, more than a million workers in California, who would otherwise likely be eligible for unemployment insurance if needed, are instead excluded because of their immigration status. The governor could end this decades-long exclusion of immigrant workers by creating a state-funded excluded workers program.

As some other states, such as Florida and Texas, further marginalize immigrants from their economies, Governor Newsom can show California and the nation what an inclusive economy can achieve. Data from the biggest state-level temporary excluded worker program has shown that participants use the funding to pay rent, buy food, or invest in their careers. It is both a bridge over a difficult period and a springboard to a better economic outcome.

Across the country, workers are demanding unemployment compensation and economic security for all, regardless of immigration status. Colorado has already created a program, and states such as New York and Washington State are pushing hard. We depend on undocumented workers for vital labor, and it’s not right to exclude them from government support if they lose their jobs.

Unemployment insurance is the primary economic support for workers who lose their jobs; it’s supposed to help jobless workers afford necessities such as food and rent while they search for work. But since its inception, millions of workers have been purposefully excluded from the UI system, particularly Black, Latinx, and women workers. Currently, people without proper work authorization are prohibited from accessing benefits, even though taxes on their labor continue to fund the system. Employer taxes paid on wages of workers who are undocumented across the country contribute $1.3 billion each year to the UI system.

People without work authorization are currently prohibited from accessing UI benefits, even though taxes on their labor continue to fund the system.

Excluding workers from the UI system hurts workers, their families, employers, and our economy. Workers miss rent payments, lose their healthcare, and cannot afford groceries. Employers lose trained and long-term employees who are forced to leave their communities in search of jobs elsewhere. Our economy suffers as unemployment compensation’s ability to act as an economic stabilizer is severely undercut, as there is less money for workers to spend in their local economies during economic downturns.

As the U.S. faces uncertainty about what will threaten our economy next—an economic recession, climate disasters, another global health emergency—ending these exclusions to ensure all workers have some form of unemployment compensation is a basic economic right and racial justice imperative.

California’s campaign, led by the Safety Net for All coalition, came close to bringing these reforms across the finish line. While they were unable to secure the funding necessary for an excluded workers program in this year’s state budget, the state is now considering a proposal to create a working group to make recommendations for a program in future years. The proposal is supported by the Legislature, and now it is up to the governor to sign it.

While the proposal is an important step, the state’s historic winter storms wiped out entire farmworker communities—making the need for an inclusive unemployment insurance system in California more urgent than ever. Towns like Planada and Pajaro, which had to be evacuated, have significant undocumented worker populations who were left without homes or jobs. A recent study from UC Merced Community and Labor Center found that 83% of households in Planada lost work, sustained property damage, or both. Among the Planada households that lost work, 57% did not have a single worker in the household eligible for UI.

Thus far, Governor Newsom has only offered limited, one-time relief payments that pale in comparison to what all other Californians can receive through UI. These workers cannot continue to hope for temporary, one-time relief. The solution must match the reality that climate-driven disasters are ongoing and continuing—so ongoing and sustainable support is needed.

Ensuring workers who are undocumented can count on basic economic support if they become unemployed recognizes the fundamental rights of all workers, irrespective of their immigration status. We hope Governor Newsom chooses once again to be a national leader in supporting immigrant workers. He and other states’ leaders should listen to workers who are speaking up and demanding that their government includes them in our shared social safety net.

Jenna Gerry is a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project. David Kallick is director of the Immigration Research Initiative.

Related to

About the Authors

Jenna Gerry

Senior Staff Attorney, National Employment Law Project

David Kallick

Director, Immigration Research Initiative

The Latest News

All news