Paula Cortez Medrano has worked in the agriculture industry since she arrived in the U.S. over 25 years ago.
She has labored in the heat of Fresno summers, picking onions, tomatoes, grapes, and garlic and in the freezing temperatures of local produce packing houses, where she would wear two layers of pants to stay warm while assembling frozen fruits and vegetables to be sold in grocery stores across the country.
She contracted COVID-19 during the pandemic and was sent home from work with only two weeks of paid sick leave. It took her 40 days to recover, but when she returned to her packing house job, she was turned away.
“They told me that they had no more work for me, that it was really slow,” she said in Spanish in an interview with The Bee.
The 66 year-old said she thinks she was turned away because of her age; they never called her back to work. Today, she sells tamales as a street vendor in central Fresno, earning an average of $80 a day, much less than the $15 per hour she earned in the packing house.
Because of workers like Cortez Medrano, California Democratic lawmakers want to extend unemployment benefits to undocumented workers, a proposal backed by a new report by the UC Merced Community and Labor Center which makes the case for why the California economy, workforce, and families would benefit.
Introduced last month by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat from Coachella, and currently under review in the legislature, AB 2847 would create the Excluded Workers Pilot Program, a two-year program that would provide funds to undocumented workers who lose their job or have their hours reduced during the calendar year 2023. The proposal, estimated at $597 million, plus administrative costs, would allow qualifying, unemployed individuals to receive up to $300 a week for 20 weeks.
The report, released Thursday, argues that undocumented workers play a key role in California’s economy, contributing an estimated $3.7 billion in annual state and local tax revenues. Additionally, these workers hold one in 16 jobs in the state, many of whom were deemed “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the risks they took working in the agriculture fields, meatpacking houses, and other key industries.