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Hollywood Unions Push for Unemployment Insurance for Striking Workers: ‘Time for California to Catch Up’

As the Hollywood strikes enter their fifth month, members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA rallied with their leaders and those of other Hollywood unions on Thursday to demand that California legislators pass a bill that would grant unemployment insurance to striking workers.

The guilds argue that such benefits are already available for workers in New York and New Jersey who are on strike for more than two weeks, and want lawmakers in Sacramento to follow in that path by approving Senate Bill 799, which was introduced by Los Angeles-based State Sens. Anthony Portatino and Maria Elena Durazo, as well as Pasadena Assemblymember Chris Holden.

Meredith Stiehm, president of WGA West, read out the speech she gave at a state assembly committee meeting last week. In it, she pointed out that thanks to New York’s unemployment laws, WGA East members have been able to apply for insurance payments for several months.

Stiehm also referenced a much-quoted Deadline article published in July in which an anonymous studio exec said that studios planned to ride out the strike “until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.”

“It’s time for California to catch up and meet the demands of the times. Writers are the present day example of members who can greatly benefit from UI, but we’re here for the workers of the future if they make the difficult decision to strike,” Stiehm said.

SB 799 passed the California Senate back in May and is now winding its way through the Assembly, having been passed by the Assembly Insurance Committee and now facing a vote from the Appropriations Committee. The bill is one of hundreds that face votes in the state legislature before it adjourns for the year on Sept. 14.

Hollywood labor’s push for SB 799 comes as the WGA’s current strike, which began on May 1, is approaching the record for the longest in the guild’s history, currently held by the 154-day strike held in 1988. SAG-AFTRA’s strike began on July 14 and has lasted for eight weeks and counting.

WGA strike captain Kayla Westergard-Dobson spoke about the extensive measures she and other writers have taken to reduce their expenses as the strike has labored on, with some relying on second and third jobs to make ends meet as their financial reserves have been depleted and left them unable to pay rent.

Westergard-Dobson said that she has exhausted the emergency savings she built up through the few writing jobs she was able to land as well as the unemployment checks she received while searching for up to a year for a new show to work on. She now has to go to food banks and has relied on strike fund grants and family support to keep up with mounting bills.

Despite that, she says she’s “one of the lucky ones.”

“Not all of us had the privilege to save up for the studios grinding our work to a halt,” she said. “But when we do work, we pay taxes, we pay into healthcare, and of course our employers pay into our unemployment fund through payroll taxes for us. Every one of us on the picket line has put in the work to earn this benefit.”

The financial pain extends to below-the-line workers as well, as their union, IATSE, has taken multiple measures on the national and local level to provide financial relief for crew workers who are often the first to face financial stress during a work stoppage. Support groups like the Motion Picture and Television Fund and the Entertainment Community Fund have reported exponential surges in requests for grants from workers across various unions.

Studio insiders say there has been no new plans to resume talks with the WGA after a contentious meeting on Aug. 22, during which several studio CEOs urged the guild’s negotiating committee to accept a counterproposal they offered earlier that month and then publicly released that proposal after the guild refused.

While the studios and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers released the proposal in the hopes of winning over the WGA members, that plan backfired as members slammed the move as a breach of good faith. Days later, the guild’s negotiating committee released a memo calling the offer “not nothing, nor nearly enough,” falling short on several key issues including streaming compensation and writers room protection.

“We have not struck for nearly four months to half-save ourselves, nor are we leaving any sector of this Guild unprotected when we return to work,” the memo continued.”

For more of TheWrap’s Hollywood strike coverage, click here.

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