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Virtual town halls will lead agency to propose rules, set contribution rates and benefits.

Paid leave for family medical situations will not take effect in Oregon for more than two years.

But the Employment Department is laying the groundwork for the 2023 launch of what would be only the fifth state program in the nation. The first of five virtual town hall meetings is scheduled for Oct. 13.

Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said the program, which the Legislature approved in House Bill 2005 last year, will require contributions by employers and workers starting in January 2022. Benefits would start one year later, after the fund has amassed money.

"When you look at the amount of work that needs to be done, it looks a lot closer," he told reporters during a weekly conference call on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

Until Gov. Kate Brown named him acting director May 31 after she fired his predecessor, Gerstenfeld had been director of the new program. From 2011 until 2019, he had led the unemployment insurance division.

Unlike unemployment benefits, which have evolved from their beginnings in the mid-1930s, Gerstenfeld said the paid family medical leave program offers a chance to build from scratch.

"Some of the pain points that we and other states are experiencing (with unemployment benefits) is because of the layering on of new technology, new programs and new needs over those many decades," he said.

"This is a great opportunity for us to build a program and a system to provide those benefits to businesses and workers from the beginning, in a way that is focused entirely on what they need and how they are going to be using it."

Four states have paid family medical leave programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island. Washington state approved it in 2007, but the law was never put into effect.

Oregon is among 11 states (and Washington, D.C.) with their own family medical leave laws. Under Oregon's 1991 law, which was ahead of the federal law by two years, businesses with 25 or more workers must offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave in specific situations. (The federal law sets 50 as the minimum.)

Family medical leave differs from sick leave. Oregon is one of five states that require paid sick leave under legislation passed in 2015.

Oregon's program would be similar to unemployment benefits, but those benefits come from taxes that only employers pay into a trust fund. Under paid family medical leave, which would offer a maximum 12 weeks of benefits, both employers and workers will pay into that fund. Employers will pay 40%, excluding businesses that already offer equivalent coverage, and employees will pay 60%. Businesses with fewer than 25 workers will not have to pay into the fund.

The 2019 law sets an overall cap of 18 weeks for paid and unpaid benefits under family medical leave.

According to legislative projections, $1.6 billion would be available for the program in the 2021-23 budget cycle — employer and worker contributions would start six months into that cycle — and $2.3 billion in the 2023-25 cycle.

The first of five virtual town halls will focus on contributions by employers and workers to the fund that will pay out benefits. Other topics in subsequent weeks are equivalent plans — businesses that already offer coverage will not have to pay into the state program — the benefits themselves, small employers and self-employed workers and independent contractors.

"We want to encourage people to give us their feedback," Gerstenfeld said. "We want to know what people want to see out of that program to make sure we are building that program with the workers and businesses that will rely upon it in mind."

The Employment Department will draft formal administrative rules for the program starting in September 2021, ahead of the January 2022 deadline for businesses and workers to begin their contributions. The rules will put in writing who pays for the program, who benefits and how it is run.

All town halls will be recorded for future access.

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