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Agency will seek to reschedule benefits to September 2023, a few months after the original target.

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Food service workers are shown here. Oregon workers may have to wait several more months beyond its scheduled launch before they can start collecting benefits under the state's paid family leave program.

Acting Director David Gerstenfeld confirmed that the Employment Department will ask lawmakers for more time to start up the program, which the Legislature approved in 2019. The law set Jan. 1, 2022, for the first contributions from employers and employees, and Jan. 1, 2023, for the first benefits to be paid out.

He said the new target date for benefit payments, if lawmakers agree to the change, is September 2023.

"It is pretty reasonable," Gerstenfeld told reporters during a weekly conference call Wednesday, May 5. "It is the earliest date that we are comfortable we can roll out that program in a way to provide the essential support we can to people."

Oregon is among nine states and Washington, D.C., that have approved such programs. Two of those other states, plus Oregon, are in the process of setting them up.

"The dates that were chosen did not anticipate a pandemic," Gerstenfeld said. "They were pretty aggressive dates to begin with."

The department has conducted several virtual public meetings during the past few months to obtain comments about how to shape the program. But Gerstenfeld said staff attention has focused primarily on unemployment benefit claims stemming from the economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

The agency received at its peak more than a half-million claims for unemployment benefits from the state trust fund and from five federal programs that Congress created during the downturn.

"Our agency has been focused on supporting all the new programs in the past year," he said. "That has meant we have had to divert our attention and that we did not make as much progress as we would have otherwise during the past year."

Gerstenfeld was the director of the agency's family leave division, charged with setting up the program, until a year ago when Gov. Kate Brown fired Kay Erickson and tapped Gerstenfeld to be acting director of the entire agency. Gerstenfeld had been director of the unemployment insurance division from 2011 until he went to the family leave program in 2019.

What's coming

Under the Oregon program, workers who earn at least $1,000 during the previous year would qualify for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, maximum benefit set at $1,215 per week. Employers would contribute 40%, and employees 60%, based on payroll deductions.

Gerstenfeld said if the program had been available during the pandemic, its benefits could have cushioned the effects of the downturn on workers.

"Because that program was not there, there was a huge gap in being able to support people and their families who needed to keep themselves safe and care for themselves or others who were sick," he said. "It particularly affected low-wage workers who were less likely to have that kind of paid leave, and also the people who were disproportionately impacted during this recession.

"The pandemic showed how vital a program it is. It also showed to us and everyone how important it is that any program — particularly a new one — is ready when it goes live to support the people who need it and rely on it."

President Joe Biden has proposed a national program of paid family leave as part of his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Its cost would be paid from increased taxes on upper-income households. He also proposes 12 weeks of benefits at $4,000 per month, less than what the Oregon program envisions.

"When we look at the proposed national legislation compared with Oregon's program, our program is a robust one," Gerstenfeld said. "It came about as a result of compromise, and in most situations, it provides more support than the national program for both workers and small businesses."

Gerstenfeld said it is possible that federal legislation would exempt states, such as Oregon, that already have similar programs in operation or in progress — but provide them with some federal support.

Oregon instituted family medical leave in 1991, two years before the federal law, but the 12 weeks are unpaid. That law is overseen by the Bureau of Labor and Industries, as is a paid sick leave law that the Oregon Legislature passed in 2015.

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