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Family leave bill inches through Legislature

SALEM — Nearly all workers in Oregon would gain the right to take paid leave for family and medical reasons under a proposal advancing through the Legislature, but it likely wouldn’t become available until 2023.

Under House Bill 2005, employers would have to let an employee — provided he or she made $1,000 or more during the current or previous year — take up to 18 weeks’ leave to care for a new child or ill family member; to deal with serious health problems, a difficult pregnancy or childbirth, or abuse; or some combination thereof. For up to 12 weeks, plus two more for a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth, a person could receive much or all of their pay while on leave.

The paid leave system that HB 2005 sets up is similar to workers’ compensation, with employers and employees both contributing a fraction of wages to a state-run insurance fund. Workers taking family or medical leave would apply to the state to get their pay while they’re away from work.

It would be up to state officials to decide what the contribution rate is, but it couldn’t exceed 1% of a worker’s wages. The employee would contribute three-fifths of that amount; the employer, two-fifths. Employee contributions would be deducted from their paychecks, just like payments into the workers’ benefit fund or a retirement savings account.

Employers with 25 or fewer employees wouldn’t have to pay into the fund, but their employees would still be eligible to take paid leave.

“Really, truly, we were working to try to make sure that every employee is covered,” said Andrea Paluso, executive director of Family Forward.

Paluso’s advocacy group worked with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, labor unions, businesses and others on the paid leave proposal. Paluso said it’s also important to her group that the policy is “equitable,” so that it’s not only available to higher-wage earners.

Parents need time

Under the latest version of the proposal, workers who make less than 65% of Oregon’s average weekly wage would be eligible for full pay while on leave. Workers making more than that would get 65% of the average weekly wage plus half of whatever they make above that threshold, up to 120% of the average weekly wage.

According to the state Employment Department, the average weekly wage in Oregon is $976. It’s recalculated every year based on pay figures throughout the state, and it is tentatively set to increase to $1,013.

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, has been working to pass paid leave for years. It’s a top priority of hers this legislative session, and other Democratic leaders are backing the effort.

“Oregonians across party and demographic lines believe strongly that parents need time away from work to welcome a new child, to make sure they can care for a newborn without going into debt, to adjust, to bond, to heal and to set their kids and their families up for success,” Williamson said. “And Oregonians believe strongly that no person should have to choose between paying their bills and taking care of themselves or a loved one.”

House Speaker Tina Kotek said Monday, June 10, that she was “optimistic” HB 2005 would pass even as adjournment approaches. Senate President Peter Courtney is also backing the effort, said spokeswoman Carol Currie.

The Legislature must conclude its business for the year by June 30.

Williamson has received a boost from business groups, which are backing the paid leave proposal unveiled Tuesday, June 11. “Paid family and medical leave is a national trend and it was clear that we would see legislation on this issue in Oregon soon,” the state’s largest business group, Oregon Business & Industry, noted in a statement.

Several elements of the latest proposal are softened considerably from earlier versions. Most notably, implementation of the paid leave program would be delayed. The state would begin collecting contributions for the insurance fund in 2022. The soonest an employee could take paid leave under the new system would be 2023.

In the legislative changes, contributions into the insurance fund have also been tweaked to favor employers. Williamson originally proposed having employers and employees pay equal amounts. As part of a deal with Democrats not to oppose a new tax on businesses to pay for K-12 education earlier this spring, Oregon Business & Industry lobbied to have the employee pay more than the employer in HB 2005.

“There was a lot of compromise involved,” Currie said.

Paluso said she’s not surprised that businesses were willing to support a compromise plan.

“We’ve seen a lot of data that indicates that when people have this policy, they come back to their jobs,” Paluso said. “And when they come back, they come back ready to work.”

The proposal has backing from some labor groups as well, including the Oregon AFL-CIO.

Losing valuable employees

Not all business groups are on board. The National Federation of Independent Business has opposed the paid leave proposal from the beginning. The small-business lobby is concerned about taxing businesses to pay for the program, even if many small businesses are exempt, and it argues the bill doesn’t do enough to protect small businesses that will lose productivity if an employee takes extended leave.

“There’s not a way to craft this policy where employers aren’t without valuable employees for certain amounts of time,” said NFIB state Director Anthony K. Smith.

HB 2005 would make life difficult for the smallest businesses because it would require them to let employees on leave return to the jobs they left, Smith said, and he thinks expecting them to line up temporary workers while they’re gone isn’t realistic: “The idea that you’re going to find a qualified person who’s willing to do the job for just 12 weeks, that’s the hard thing.”

The proposal has some Republican support. Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, testified in support of the bill Tuesday, an unusual step for a minority lawmaker with a Democratic leader’s bill. But when the House Rules Committee voted to endorse HB 2005 and send it to the House floor Thursday, June 13, it wasn’t a unanimous vote. Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, voted against it.

The paid leave proposal still has significant hurdles to clear. With an estimated price tag of $15.7 million over the next two years, it will need to be reviewed by the legislative budget-writing committee, which is already considering hundreds of other requests for state money this month.

Because HB 2005 raises revenue, if it advances to a floor vote, it will need at least 36 representatives and 18 senators’ support to pass.

Reporter Mark Miller: mmiller@fgnewstimes.com. Miller works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.