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Oregon's paid family leave program presses on

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Oregon's program of paid family leave is still on track to start in 2023 despite a complaint alleging discrimination within the team that is building the program and several pending staff departures, including the program's acting director.

"We remain on track for the statutory implementation dates" of Jan. 1, 2023, for employee and employer contributions and Sept. 3, 2023, for payment of benefits under the program, said David Gerstenfeld, acting director of the Oregon Employment Department.

Gerstenfeld said the complaint is being investigated by a lawyer outside state government. He declined to describe the basis for the complaint or whether action has been taken against any employees as a result. It is also unclear whether pending staff departures are related to the complaint, although Gerstenfeld said the acting director said in August he would leave by Oct. 31. Gerhard Taeubel had come from the Bureau of Labor and Industries, where in 18 years he rose to be its wage and hour division director.

"While I can't talk about an ongoing investigation, I want to be clear that these concerns are something I take extremely seriously," Gerstenfeld said. "Having an objective external investigation is important to us. But we are not going to wait on the outcome of that investigation to take action toward culture change within the program."

Gerstenfeld said he has spoken with members of the team — which is a separate division within the Employment Department — and will bring in outside experts in equity, diversity and inclusion to review people and practices. He said he expects to fill key positions, including the director's job, by the end of the year.

"Equity and inclusion are not optional in this agency," Gerstenfeld said.

"While people leave for various reasons, having this many key people leave makes it clear that we need to make some changes — and we are making changes."

The 2019 Legislature added Oregon to the ranks of states with paid medical and family leave. Lawmakers at their most recent regular session put off implementation dates at the agency's request. The original law had called for payroll contributions to start on Jan. 1, 2022, and benefit payments on Jan. 1, 2023. The projected split is 60% from employees and 40% from employers.

Gerstenfeld himself had led the agency's family and medical leave division from fall 2019 until May 31, 2020, when Gov. Kate Brown tapped him to be acting director of the agency after she fired Kay Erickson. The agency faced a record backlog of claims for unemployment benefits as a result of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Gerstenfeld had led the unemployment insurance division, which oversees unemployment benefits, from 2011 to 2019.

Gerstenfeld said the agency has proceeded with a series of virtual meetings to hear public comments about the rules for the program. He also said that elements of the program, such as employee and employer contributions and benefit payments, are being integrated into the agency's computer modernization project now underway.

"It is a rare opportunity to build a program from the ground up," he said, without barriers to people who have been historically underserved.

Six states — California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Washington — and Washington, D.C. have similar programs. Connecticut is set to start in early 2022, followed by Oregon in 2023, then Colorado in 2024.

A federal program has been proposed by President Joe Biden as part of the Build Back Better plan in a budget resolution pending in Congress. Though final details are not set — if the program makes it into the budget — Biden's plan would provide a maximum of $4,000 per month. Oregon's plan envisions a maximum of $1,250 per week for 12 weeks to workers who earn at least $1,000 the previous calendar year.

"We are glad to see national attention to this important support program. The one that has passed in Oregon looks like it will probably be beneficial to and supportive of more Oregon workers than the national model," Gerstenfeld said.

"Based on what we have seen so far, Oregon would continue with its program."

As the federal legislation is currently proposed, states with their own programs would be allowed to continue them, though Gerstenfeld said all states could benefit from federal aid.

"I am sure there will need to be some adjustments" if there is federal legislation, he said. "But when we looked at some of the core features of the federal program, they are already built into Oregon's."

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