Oregon Signals Delay To Long-Sought Paid Family, Medical Leave Program

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The state passed one of the nation’s most generous paid leave policies for workers in 2019. But the planned rollout in 2023 might be delayed by COVID-19.

In 2019, Oregon lawmakers enacted one of the country’s most generous laws granting paid leave for workers needing time off to care for ailing family members, bond with a new child, or recover from illness. But with deadlines to roll out the program fast approaching, the state now says it won’t be able to start that policy as soon as planned.

A bill introduced in the Oregon House on Tuesday would delay many facets of the Oregon Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance program by a year. That includes the OED’s deadline for creating rules for the policy, which are currently due in September, and the date that employers and employees will begin paying to fund the program, currently set for January 2022.

Perhaps most notably, employees who qualify for paid leave under the program would not be able to receive it until September 2023 under the proposed change, eight months later than planned.

The Employment Department, already battered by a pandemic that laid bare its flawed system for distributing unemployment insurance payments, says it needs the leeway.

“Given the impacts of the pandemic over the last year, and the responsibility of the entire agency to focus all of its efforts on administering unemployment insurance benefits to hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, it’s clear that we need to adjust this timeline to implement the PFMLI program successfully,” an OED explanation of the proposed change says. “Even with these changes, the timeline to implement the PFMLI program is still aggressive. We remain committed to launching this vital program as quickly and successfully as possible.”

The department says a delay will offer a number of benefits, including allowing it to “build a modernized technology platform” that will smoothly distribute benefits, train up staff, and build comprehensive rules.

“The pandemic has shown us how vital paid leave is and how important it is that we get this program right for Oregonians from the beginning,” the OED website says.

The bill that would facilitate the delay, House Bill 3398, was introduced in the Oregon House on Tuesday at the request of the OED.

Passed under 2019′s House Bill 2005, the Oregon Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance program was heralded as one of the most progressive such policies in the nation.

Under the program, workers who earn at least $1,000 in the last year can qualify for up to 12 weeks of paid time off. For low-wage workers earning up to 65% of the state’s average weekly wage, or about $711, the program will cover their entire paychecks. Higher-paid employees would receive a percentage of their wage, with benefits maxing out at 120% the state’s average wage, which would currently top out payments at $1,312 a week.

The leave program will be funded by payroll taxes of up to 1%, with 60% paid for by employees and 40% covered by employers. Those taxes, set to kick in next January, would be delayed by a year under the proposed bill.

The paid policy offers a meaningful boost to existing federal and state laws that guarantee employees the right to take time off for illness or family leave, but do not offer wage replacement.

Andrea Paluso, executive director of the group Family Forward Oregon, which helped craft Oregon’s plan, said Tuesday she understands the state’s reasons for the proposed delay. She and other boosters of the policy are hopeful that extra time will result in a better program.

“I’m disappointed about the delay, but the good signs are that the Employment Department and various other folks have recommitted to the importance of this program,” Paluso said. “Nothing has demonstrated the importance of paid family and medical leave more than this last year has. This could have been such a helpful thing if it would have existed this past year for so many Oregon families.”

This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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