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As California expands safety net for workers, undocumented Californians fall through the holes

on September 23, 2020

Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 1867 into law on September 10, guaranteeing full-time and part-time employees sick leave in California. That very same morning, Domingo, an undocumented day laborer who has lived in the Fruitvale for 28 years, woke up in his trailer feeling like he was suffocating from wildfire smoke. 

Then he went to look for work.

Undocumented workers make up 10 percent of the workforce in California. Often working as day laborers, domestic workers and other jobs in the informal economy, they contribute over $3.2 billion in taxes, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. For workers like Domingo, sick days are simply not an option.

Domingo, 58, tries to take any job that comes his way, but he fell from a ladder while working a painting job, leaving him with chronic pain in his shoulders and arms. Now, he looks for shorter and lighter jobs. Over the years, he taught himself some basic mechanic skills. When jobs are scarce, Domingo will buy a clunker and fix it up to resell for a small profit. These days however, few people are buying cars in the Fruitvale.

“Some weeks I’ve been able to make some money; others I haven’t been able to make any at all,” Domingo said through a translator. Domingo, a former military police officer, works as a day laborer to send money back to support nine family members in Honduras. Oakland North is only using Domingo’s first name for privacy reasons.

“Helping employees stay home when they are sick is foundational in our response to COVID-19,” said Governor Newsom in a statement. “This bill fills in gaps in our federal and state paid sick days policy and gives our extraordinary employees a little more peace of mind as they take time to care for themselves and protect those around them from COVID-19.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on protections for workers. Sick leave has become an essential factor in stopping the spread of the virus. But it is undocumented workers who have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic and public health impact while receiving the weakest workplace protections and rights. Low-paying jobs were the first to disappear. Many workers in the informal economy are uninsured. Most pandemic related aid like unemployment insurance is out of reach because these undocumented workers lack a social security number.

Two bills that would provide a modest amount of support for undocumented Californians like Domingo remain unsigned on Governor Newsom’s desk. AB 826, introduced by assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), would authorize a $600 grocery assistance program but does not include funding.

“It’s not unusual that you do bills like this because when we did the free community college bill, we put the policy piece in place but it gave us the ability to fight tooth and nail to get the money funded,” Santiago told CalMatters.

The other bill AB 1876 would allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for an earned income tax credit (EITC), which effectively boosts wages for very low-income workers through a subsidy when workers file a tax return. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report shows the implementation of EITC policies has raised millions of low-income families out of poverty every year by putting more money into the hands of the poor.

California has taken a more progressive stance on undocumented immigrants compared to other states. In 2013, the state removed proof of citizenship from its requirements to obtain a driver’s license. In 2019, it expanded the eligibility criteria for Medi-Cal, which provides healthcare for low-income individuals and families, to include all undocumented children. However, legislators have struggled to find funding this legislative session to help some of the state’s most vulnerable communities. 

The fate of those two bills is still up in the air. In 2019, Newsom chose not to sign into legislation bills that would have expanded benefits for undocumented immigrants through tax credits.

“We were not able to finance that in our budget proposal at this time,” Newsom’s budget director, Vivek Viswanathan, said in 2019 at a budget conference committee hearing, according to The Sacramento Bee.

Republican state senator John Moorlach, representing Costa Mesa, voted against expanding EITC benefits. Moorlach told CalMatters “we have to be real careful about how we’re spending state dollars.” The California Department of Finance projects an $8.7 billion deficit next year.

Past efforts to help undocumented immigrants during the pandemic have fallen short. Earlier this year, Newsom announced that California set aside a $125 million fund for a one-time assistance program directed to 150,000 undocumented Californians. The state put up $75 million, with $50 million coming from a number of philanthropies. The program, administered by 12 nonprofit groups, gave undocumented adults a single payment of $500 with a maximum of $1,000 per household on a first-come first-serve basis.

“Every Californian, including our undocumented neighbors and friends, should know that California is here to support them during this crisis. We are all in this together,” Newsom said in a statement released in April.

That aid only reached seven percent of the undocumented community, approximately two million in California. Gabriela Galicia, executive director of grassroots community organization Street Level Health Project, said it created a sense of despair in the undocumented community as people crashed phone lines trying to access the funds. Domingo, the day laborer, made over 200 calls in vain.

“No one ever answered the telephone,” Domingo said. “No one I know was able to receive the money. I appreciate the governor setting this money aside, but the organizations that received the money were not prepared for it.” 

Grassroots community organizations like the Street Level Health Project have stepped in to support undocumented workers in the Fruitvale community. At the outset of the pandemic, the organization raised $116,000 through community donations and gave out 80 percent directly to day laborers in the form of $300 grants while reserving the remaining funds to add to a COVID-19 relief fund.

“Day laborers don’t have the luxury to really stay at home or not go to a street corner [to look for work],” said Galicia. “It not only puts themselves at risk, but it puts other people at risk when they’re not able to stay at home, and there’s little economic support for them and their families.”

“Our hope is that there’s a safety net for all, including undocumented people during this time,” Galicia said.

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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