Bill would reset timelines to 2023 to allow more time for Employment Department preparation.

Oregon's new program of paid family leave would be delayed under a bill that has cleared the House.

A vote of 33-19 on Tuesday, June 8, moved House Bill 3398 to the Senate.

The starting date for contributions by employers and employees would be put off by one year, from Jan. 1, 2022, to Jan. 1, 2023. The starting date for benefit payments would be Sept. 3, 2023, instead of Jan. 1.

The 2019 Legislature approved the program. Eight other states and Washington, D.C., have started or are preparing similar programs.

"This is an important program that had some pretty aggressive timelines to begin with," Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said in presenting the bill. "It's really important that we get it right. It's important for employers and employees."

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

Oregon's program is more generous than a proposal by President Joe Biden for a federal program, which would offer up to $4,000 per month. Congress has not acted on the federal program, which is part of Biden's American Families Plan.

Acting Director David Gerstenfeld said the Employment Department sought the delay because it intends to integrate collections of employer and employee contributions into its computer modernization project, which will start its long-awaited first phase in July. The first phase also involves updating the collection of payroll taxes that employers pay into the state unemployment trust fund for benefits. Employees do not pay into that fund.

Though preparations for the new program have proceeded since the Legislature passed it in 2019, Gerstenfeld said staff — including himself — were diverted to handle new and expanded federal unemployment benefit programs since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

"The original statutory timelines were created before a lot of work had been done to see what would be needed to build the technology and the work processes to make it successful from the day it becomes available to the public," Gerstenfeld told the House Rules Committee on May 27, when it heard the bill. "Also importantly, it was before the pandemic."

Until Gov. Kate Brown fired Gerstenfeld's predecessor and named Gerstenfeld as acting director of the agency on May 31, 2020, Gerstenfeld led the new paid family leave program. He was shifted into that job in 2019, after eight years as director of its unemployment insurance division.

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