Since she arrived in the United States over 25 years ago, Paula Cortez Medrano has worked in the farm business.
She has worked in the blistering heat of Fresno summers picking onions, tomatoes, grapes, and garlic, as well as in the freezing temperatures of local produce packing houses, where she wore two layers of pants to stay warm while assembling frozen fruits and vegetables for distribution to grocery stores across the country.
During the epidemic, she caught COVID-19 and was sent home with only two weeks of paid sick leave. Her recovery took 40 days, but she was refused when she returned to her packing housework.
“They told me they didn’t have any more work for me and that the process was extremely sluggish,” she explained in Spanish during an interview with The Bee.
The 66-year-old believes she has been turned away due to her age; she was never contacted to return to work. Today, she makes an average of $80 per day selling tamales as a street vendor in central Fresno, far less than the $15 per hour she made in the packing business.
As a result of workers like Cortez Medrano, Democratic lawmakers in California want to extend unemployment benefits to undocumented workers, a proposal backed by a new report from the UC Merced Community and Labor Center that makes a case for the benefits to the California economy, workforce, and families.
Introduced last month by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Coachella Democrat, and currently undergoing legislative review, Assembly Bill 2847 would establish the Excluded Workers Pilot Program.
This two-year program would provide funds to undocumented workers who lose their jobs or have their hours reduced during the calendar year 2023.
The idea, which is anticipated to cost $597 million-plus administrative costs, would provide eligible unemployed persons with up to $300 each week for 20 weeks.
According to the analysis issued Thursday, undocumented workers are critical to California’s economy, generating an estimated $3.7 billion in yearly state and local tax income.
Additionally, these employees account for every sixteen employees in the state, with many classified as “essential workers” during the COVID-19 epidemic due to the hazards they faced working in farm fields, meatpacking plants, and other critical businesses.
California is home to an estimated 2 million illegal residents, with around 1.1 million of that group working.
According to the survey, an estimated 7% of the 1.6 million employees in the middle San Joaquin Valley are illegal.
According to the research, over 38% of noncitizen employees and more than 61% of children living with noncitizen workers live in homes earning less than the minimum wage and endure chronic and severe housing and food insecurity.
“Unfortunately, these employees experience a high rate of acute suffering and are ineligible for unemployment benefits.”
The analysis indicates that the difficulties faced by illegal workers are only expected to worsen as a consequence of a variety of natural issues such as wildfires, earthquakes, excessive heat, and drought, all of which are compounded by the state’s chronic public health crisis.
Cortez Medrano stated that unemployment benefits under a trial program would be “la Gloria,” or glory. She would utilize the cash to pay rent, bills, and purchase food during her unemployed period.
“I require assistance now,” she stated in Spanish. “The moment has come.”
Apart from unemployment benefits, Cortez Medrano stated that she truly desires a work permit to facilitate her job hunt. “I am still capable of working,” she stated.
Undocumented workers face significant risks and have little protection.
Researchers at UC Merced discovered a link between in-person work, unemployment benefits utilization, and the illegal workforce.
Workers in industries with the greatest death rates from COVID also reported the lowest rates of unemployment insurance utilization.
Immigrants accounted for approximately 60% of coronavirus-related deaths in the industry in California, with the highest pandemic-related death rate.
Immigrants accounted for the bulk of deaths in agricultural (83%), landscaping (81%), food processing (69%), restaurants and food services (53%), and building services (52%).
Undocumented employees in these areas were particularly susceptible since they lacked an alternative source of income in the case of job loss. Although they are not eligible for benefits, they contribute to the unemployment insurance system.
“Without a safety net benefit system, many illegal employees frequently felt compelled to continue working — often in hazardous situations that posed substantial hazards to their own and others’ health — to pay financial obligations,” researchers said.
Immigrants accounted for the lion’s share of pandemic-related mortality in California’s most dangerous industries.
Unemployment benefits could have averted some of these fatalities. “When employees lack access to unemployment benefits, they become more vulnerable,” said Edward Flores, a sociology professor, and researcher at UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center.
On the other hand, researchers discovered that employees in industries with low levels of in-person labor and a high prevalence of unemployment did not see as dramatic increases in pandemic-related death.
The researchers found that “economic assistance is a critical instrument for protecting the health and well-being of employees and their families during times of public health crisis.”
California assisted during the epidemic. Undocumented employees may receive up to $1,700 in state money, including a $500 COVID-19 Disaster Relief pre-paid card and $1,200 from the Golden State Stimulus Fund.
Nonetheless, the report calculated that these benefits were 20 times less than the $36,000 in economic assistance that California citizen workers received during the first year of the pandemic from a combination of unemployment insurance, federal pandemic unemployment compensation, and federal stimulus aid.
During the epidemic, employers in these businesses reported unprecedented earnings. Fresno County set a new output record in 2021, while meat processing firm earnings skyrocketed throughout the epidemic.
“However, low wages and a lack of a safety net continue to jeopardize the economic stability and well-being of the employees who earned this riches,” the research stated.
According to the UC Merced researchers, part of the solution is for the state to close this “policy gap” by leveraging the financial excess and lessons acquired during the epidemic.
“It took the Great Depression to establish the New Deal and many of the worker protections today, such as unemployment insurance or Social Security,” Flores of UC Merced explained.
“Our state is at a comparable historical crossroads, having endured a once-in-a-generation catastrophe and then confronted with a plethora of money to handle,” he explained.
California’s state budget surplus is $38 billion in 2021 and $31 billion in 2022.
“This is a chance for policymakers to solve policy gaps for the immediate future and any future public emergency,” Flores said.
California has increased illegal immigrants’ access to public benefits. In 2020, the state expanded eligibility for the California Earned Income Tax Credit, a state tax credit worth hundreds of dollars, to qualified low-income unauthorized immigrants.
Last year, the state made history by expanding access to public health care to illegal California residents aged 50 and older. However, not everyone supports extending benefits to the illegal.