'Left Behind': Newsom Vetoes Unemployment Benefits for Family Caregivers

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

By Sarah Lakshmi for KQED

Cathyleen Williams has been fighting for a financial safety net for California's in-home caregivers since her own son, Caleb, died in 2016.

She took full-time care of Caleb for nearly 10 years after he was born with a heart defect, as he battled health complications and surgeries. Williams was paid minimum wage for that care through California's In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) Program, which compensates an estimated 120,000 people statewide for providing in-home care to their elderly or disabled parents, spouses or children.

Williams was in her mid-40s when Caleb passed away. The loss was a deep and heavy weight, but what came after kept her fighting to ensure no other mother or caregiver would undergo the same experience: she lost not only her son, but her employment as well — and California doesn't allow in-home family caregivers to collect unemployment benefits when the child, spouse or parent they're caring for dies. Non-family caregivers in the IHSS program get state unemployment insurance in these situations — caregivers in the same family do not.

Williams' years-long fight culminated in Assembly Bill 1993, which would have allowed caregivers to file for unemployment upon the death of the loved one they'd been caring for under the IHSS program. The provider population currently ineligible is approximately 22% of the state’s total IHSS provider population, according to the bill analysis.

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed AB 1993 last week.

In a veto message, Newsom blamed the "significant new borrowing of federal funds" which he said the bill would have required, and which would have "[increased] interest costs borne by the state General Fund that were not included in the 2020 Budget." Newsom referenced the COVID-19 pandemic and said boosting protections and benefits for in-home caregivers "is critical" — but he insisted that any further protections "must be developed through the budget process."

"I have not stopped since Caleb died," Williams told KQED in the days after Newsom vetoed the bill. "It was bad when Caleb died, but at least I could seek employment. In the middle of a worldwide pandemic, I just feel like the governor turned his back ... Who is going to take care of these mamas now? None of this makes sense to me."

Kristina Bas Hamilton, legislative director of United Domestic Workers of America (UDW)/AFSCME Local 3930, said 85% of the people doing this work across California are women of color.

"We’re supposed to be about California for all," she said. "To exclude domestic workers and people working in homes dates back to slavery. There is no safety net."

Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles), who co-sponsored the bill, echoed Bas Hamilton.

Vetoing AB 1993 is a “missed an opportunity for California to right a historic wrong,” Kamlager said in a statement via email.

Kamlager added that “parent and spouse IHSS providers were excluded from basic worker protections long ago because labor performed by wives and mothers and especially labor performed by women of color was not valued by lawmakers.”

Providers are primarily “Black and brown wives and mothers who left careers outside the home to care for their disabled children and spouses," Kamlager said. "They deserve the basic protection of unemployment, just like every other IHSS provider.”

Kamlager wrote a Medium post in May telling the story of another mother in El Dorado, California.

Caregivers working these jobs often earn just above minimum wage.

“Unemployment insurance has never been more important for frontline-working Californians like us,” said United Domestic Worker (UDW) president and IHSS provider Editha Adams in a statement.

Williams, who lost her son four years ago, said she will keep fighting. She's started Babies So Special, a nonprofit to help others going through similar situations to hers.

“We expected Governor Newsom to have the courage to lead by example and take action to break down systemic racism and sexism by signing AB 1993,” said Doug Moore, UDW executive director in a statement. “Instead he chose to leave caregivers behind.”