This month, Oregon became the latest state to start paying out benefits under its new paid leave program. Workers can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave for family, medical or safe leave, which is available to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and harassment. Workers applying to take paid leave for pregnancy may be eligible for an additional two weeks of benefits. Although self-employed people or independent contractors are not automatically covered under the program, they can make quarterly contributions to participate, depending on eligibility. We’ll hear from Karen Humelbaugh, director of Paid Leave Oregon about how the program is going, its impact so far and the online application process, which is available for English and Spanish speakers.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. This month, Oregon became the latest state to start paying out benefits under its new paid leave program. Workers can take up to 12 weeks of paid time off, family, medical or other kinds of leave. Karen Humelbaugh is the director of Paid Leave Oregon. We talked in the past when the program was being developed. She joins us once again now that money is actually flowing. Welcome back to the show.
Karen Humelbaugh: Thanks for having me.
Miller: So this is a program that lawmakers approved in 2019. Can you remind us why it’s taken until now for benefits to actually be going out?
Humelbaugh: Sure, it takes a while to develop an entire program. We also developed a new technology as we were doing that. And so the new technology is a new benefits portal and a portal for employers. And we were also needing to collect contributions. The program is funded through contributions that are paid by both workers and employers. We had to build that state trust. And so that’s sort of the timeline that happened.
Miller: You know, it’s interesting you talk about technology. Longtime listeners, long time Oregonians will probably be able to think of a couple different enormous fiascos, in terms of websites, that either were purchased by Oregon state government or created when there were just gigantic problems. I mean, one that comes to mind recently in the pandemic was employment. But health care had a gigantic problem as well. How much were those fiascos in your mind as you created a new system?
Humelbaugh: Certainly, it was an awareness we had that we wanted to make sure that we actually built something that worked for our customers and that we were efficient in doing that. Since we’ve launched, it’s actually been very successful. We did not have any technological glitches, which knock on wood, there are gonna be some bumps in the road. But in our benefits portal, folks are able to complete their application and make their account and create a claim in about 30 minutes. So that seems like success for us. We’re able to do that in two languages, which was a heavy lift.
Miller: In English and Spanish?
Humelbaugh: That’s right. And we’re the only place in the country that has actually any language other than English in its benefits portal.
Miller: Who’s eligible for this program, can you remind us?
Humelbaugh: Most workers in Oregon are eligible. So if you’re a W-2 type employee, you are eligible. Folks can opt in if they’re self-employed. Federal and Tribal governments are not in the Paid Leave Program.
Miller: And then what kinds of leave are actually available?
Humelbaugh: You can take three types of leave. It’s family, medical, and safe leave. And so family leave is usually bonding with a child. It might be taking care of a family member who’s ill and needs care. And then medical leave is when we have our own serious health condition like a surgery or something like that, perhaps chemotherapy. And then safe leave is for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking.
Miller: What have you found in terms of what people are actually applying for among those three different categories?
Humelbaugh: The largest is bonding leave. So in that family leave category, about half of the applications are in that bonding [category].
Miller: I mean, is that different from maternity or paternity leave? Is it just a different name for the same essential thing?
Humelbaugh: Essentially, it’s the same. It can be up to the first year of a child’s life or adoption or foster care placement.
Miller: So that’s the most popular?
Humelbaugh: Yes, it’s definitely about half and is what we expected as well. Right now we’re just in the middle of looking at our data because it’s just a few weeks into the program. And then the medical leave is the second highest. So people’s own health conditions. And then safe leave is a smaller amount at about 1% of our approved applications.
Miller: How many applications were you anticipating based on your projections?
Humelbaugh: We thought we’d have an initial surge of about 40,000 and then about 60,000 during 2023, so the remainder of the year total 60,000. So far, we’re at about 20,000 applications that we’ve received.
Miller: So far, below expectations?
Humelbaugh: It’s a little lower than we expected for the initial surge. Although I think it’s starting to pick up a bit for those folks, particularly those bonding claims I was talking about because you have that first year of a child’s life. And so we’re seeing those come in.
Miller: What have you been doing recently or, I imagine, in the lead up to this launch of people actually being able to take advantage of this, to spread the word so Oregonians can actually know what’s available to them?
Humelbaugh: We’ve done a tremendous amount of outreach, especially in the last year. We have an entire outreach team. We have done a lot of multilingual kinds of activities. We really have built this program, reaching into the community and getting feedback, wanting to make sure that everyone understands what the program is about and that they could qualify for it.
Miller: How much money on average are people getting?
Humelbaugh: Well, it’s based on an average weekly benefit amount, so the average wages. The maximum you can receive is about $1,500 per week. And right now we’re sitting at about $850 a week for the average, of folks who’ve been approved.
Miller: What percentage of overall applications that are coming in are actually being approved?
Humelbaugh: Well, so far, we’ve approved about 30% of the applications that are coming in. We don’t have an exact [number] who’s being denied necessarily, because we’re giving people ample opportunity to make sure that their accounts are correct. Some people haven’t uploaded appropriate documents and so we’re reaching out to them. And some people aren’t qualified because they don’t meet the income threshold or perhaps they have an employer who’s an equivalent plan employer. So they need to apply through their employer.
Miller: So it seems like a combination. Some people just are ineligible. But sometimes they might be eligible but they didn’t dot their i’s or cross all their t’s. So then what happens? I mean, does a human reach out to them?
Humelbaugh: A human does reach out to them. Our commitment, as part of our customer service, is that we will at least contact someone by phone and by web notice, which is essentially email, prior to anything happening with their claims. So we wanna make sure we’re giving people ample time.
We’re all building this together. It’s a new experience. So people aren’t as used to the system or what are the requirements. And so we wanna make sure that we’re really serving people.
Miller: And you noted that some people might not be eligible because their employers offer something similar. So that means that there would be no need for them to take advantage of the state program because they can get the exact same thing through their employer. I mean, how does that work?
Humelbaugh: About 3,000 employers applied for, what we call, an equivalent plan. For those folks, the employer has to offer equal to or greater than the benefit that’s offered through Paid Leave Oregon. And so those individuals are still covered, they can get the exact same thing they could get with Paid Leave Oregon. They just do it through the insurer that their employer has chosen.
Miller: You mentioned that Oregon is the only state in the country that has a program like this where the information is available in Spanish and in English. What about people whose first language is some other language? What options do they have?
Humelbaugh: The portal is the thing that’s in just two languages. Our website is actually available in eight languages. All of our materials are printed in 12. If you have a language outside of that, we actually have people…there’s probably a couple dozen languages that people have asked their preference for being spoken to. About 21% of our staff that we hired are bilingual in another language other than English. So we’re really trying to make sure that we can reach people in those languages.
Miller: What advice do you have for people who are applying right now?
Humelbaugh: My advice to folks is to go to our website, which is really simple. It’s just paidleave.oregon.gov. Look at the toolkit that we have there and also the checklist. The place we’re seeing the biggest gap that will delay the claim getting approved is uploading appropriate documentation. And we have a list there of what’s acceptable documentation and what things need to be on those documents. When we get those in, those can go pretty quickly. But when we’re missing them, we have to do that outreach with the phone or the email.
Miller: Given that fewer people so far have signed up for paid leave than you anticipated, does that mean that the system is very well funded right now?
Humelbaugh: We haven’t had time to analyze because we only have a few claims. But certainly we have actually only two quarters of contributions that have come in. The third quarter will come in October. So we’re just continuing to look at that as we look at the trust fund. We’re talking to lawmakers and our advisory committee to make sure that we have that long term sustainability.
Miller: Where do you see room for improvement right now?
Humelbaugh: We have lots of room for improvement. We’re discovering things every day, in terms of customer experience, in terms of us making sure that we are making things simple for folks and that we explain them well. The documentation is a great [example of] making sure people understand what they need to upload. So I think those little things will make a big difference in people’s experience and they’ll also make a big difference in how quickly we can get those claims out the door.
Miller: Finally, I want to go back to the different kinds of leave. In the past, we’ve talked about safe leave for survivors of domestic violence. You noted that, and maybe this is not a surprise, right now that’s by far the lowest percentage of people who are applying. What are you doing specifically in terms of education there, so that people in those situations are even aware that this exists. Is it still the case that Oregon is the only state in the country where safe leave is a part of a public program?
Humelbaugh: We’re one of three states that have safe leave. But we are the only one that has it as comprehensive, you could go up to the full 12 weeks to get a benefit.
Miller: So what are you doing to let people know?
Humelbaugh: We’ve been working in our outreach efforts with organizations that work with survivors. And so making sure that they understand we’re doing a lot of engagement with them and making sure that people have the information and understand. We also have a specific team that works with safe leave claims and that is both on our phones and in the operational side, like approving of the claim.
Miller: So you have a different system?
Humelbaugh: It’s the same system, but we want to make sure that we’re serving those people, because they have a very unique situation, the best we can.
Miller: So on the customer service side of it, there’s more trauma informed people who are, you think, better equipped to handle sensitive issues?
Humelbaugh: They’re trained with this specifically in mind.
Miller: Karen Humelbaugh, thanks very much.
Humelbaugh: Thank you.
Miller: Karen Humelbaugh is the director of Paid Leave Oregon which, as of the beginning of this month, is now paying out for paid time off.
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