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Oregon Obscures Effectiveness of Paid Leave Program

A public dashboard shows only some of the numbers pertaining to the state’s family and medical leave program that launched in September, furthering distrust in a system that has already faced a variety of issues.

a woman holds her infant
Synovia Williams holds her infant son Synko in a park in Southeast Portland on Wednesday. Williams had to return to work from maternity leave a month earlier than planned after Oregon failed for several months to process her application for paid leave benefits.
Dave Killen/TNS
Oregon is providing an incomplete, if not misleading, portrait of the effectiveness of its new paid family and medical leave program, excluding an unknown number of claims from the data it shares with the public about its application and payment process.

A public dashboard shows the state has verified nearly 88,000 claims and made payments to about 49,000 people totaling $370 million in benefits since the program launched in September.

But Paid Leave Oregon has received many more applications that it hasn’t quantified publicly. Its dashboard doesn’t include fraudulent claims or those that haven’t cleared the program’s identity verification process.

The lack of transparency is significant because the program has already faced various problems, including a dysfunctional work environment, a delayed launch and a backlog of claims after the system went live. The limited information now released by the state makes it difficult for the public to know if the program is plagued by fraud or to accurately judge how well it is serving the Oregon workers it is supposed to help.

The Oregon Employment Department has asserted without evidence that releasing more data about the program could make it a magnet for scammers. Its choice to obscure the aggregate number of applications received underscores the broad discretionary power granted to it by the Legislature and lawmakers’ reluctance to call for greater transparency.

No other state with a paid leave program appears to be as secretive.

“It sounds like Oregon’s Paid Leave program has too much leeway to avoid being fully transparent with the public,” Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, which advocates for open and accountable governments, said in an email. “The public has a right and legitimate need to see how our state agencies are operating.”

Some workers say they have waited months for benefits with little communication from Paid Leave Oregon, with delays due in part to the identity verification process. A mother of five said she’d been waiting for benefits since January and received an eviction notice after she couldn’t afford March rent, forcing her to end her leave and return to work early. Another Portland resident reported having to return early from knee surgery to a job requiring physical labor, hindering his recovery. Yet another worker, an engineer, said the agency deleted his application while he cared for his dying mother. He estimates he spent around 40 hours on hold with the department trying to get the application issues resolved, to no avail.

“I’m a big believer in public service and providing a safety net for people,” said Nathaniel Green, the engineer who lives in Ashland and said he’s been waiting six months for the benefits he’s owed. “It’s disheartening to see the one time I try to access it, it’s hugely dysfunctional.”

State officials say they believe wholeheartedly in transparency and are working hard to make the system work more quickly, but insist they need to be cautious to protect taxpayers from the risk of fraud.

“We understand and support the public’s right to know how we are performing, and we will continue to share information about that in ways that do not create undue additional risk to those we are serving,” Rebeka Gipson-King, a spokesperson for the employment department, said in an email.

Oregon’s paid leave program is among the most expansive and progressive in the country. It grants 12 weeks of paid leave to workers for the birth or adoption of a child, for serious illness or injury, for taking care of a seriously ill family member, or to recover from domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking or harassment. The program, approved by lawmakers in 2019, is funded by a payroll tax of 1 percent on gross wages with workers paying 60 percent of the contribution and employers paying 40 percent.

Soon after the program launched last September, applicants began raising alarm about benefit delays. At the time, Karen Madden Humelbaugh, director of Paid Leave Oregon, said she was aware of fewer than 100 people who were held up in the application process longer than expected due to the program’s identity verification process or other snags in the system. By December, she said the known backlog had grown to around 1,500 people.

State officials now say they are aware of a total of 2,084 people who they ultimately paid who waited longer than 20 days before their identities were verified, representing about 4 percent of all paid applications.

Gipson-King said the agency believes few people are facing those delays anymore. She said it is now taking on average only four days for applicants to move through the identity verification process, in which workers upload identifying documents like a driver’s license to prove their applications aren’t fraudulent. She said officials are aware of only 269 claims actively tied up in that process because the claimant failed to provide the state with necessary information, with the oldest one dating back to April 3.

But those numbers don’t include potentially eligible Oregonians who may have given up following complications in that process or had their claims dropped by the agency, something the program does when applicants don’t respond to identity verification requests within a certain time period. Those claims aren’t reflected anywhere in the data the agency provides publicly.

Other customers with complex claims may face delays for other reasons, Gipson-King said, but the department has specialists who are working to help those applicants move through the process. About half of applicants who received benefits this year got their money within a month of applying, although nearly 13 percent waited 51 days or more for benefits, according to state data.

“We certainly empathize with people who have to wait for benefits,” Gipson-King said. “We understand that people who need paid leave aren’t always in a place where they can wait. However, we need time to make sure customers are both eligible for the program and that they are who they say they are.”

‘So Defeating’

Paid Leave Oregon’s director has touted the success of the program and the thousands of Oregonians it has served, pointing to public data to say how proud she is of the program’s work.

“Behind each number is a real person or family who is touched by our program and the work that we do every day,” Humelbaugh said during a March 20 press conference. “Because of the Paid Leave Oregon program, a cashier can take time to bond with their newborn baby, a dental hygienist can take time to care for their parent with a new dementia diagnosis, a construction worker can take time to recover from a back injury.”

In theory, at least.

Portland resident Jenn McDonald said her husband, Jeff McDonald, had to return to his job restoring vintage cars in April, a month early, after undergoing knee surgery because Oregon had yet to process his paid leave application. She said that decision has hindered his recovery because his job is physically demanding.

McDonald is one of the Oregonians who hasn’t been reflected in the state’s public data. His wife, who has handled the application process for him, said the couple tried to upload his identity verification documents multiple times, but the state continued to say it hadn’t received the records. Copies of emails shared with the newsroom show state workers asking them to upload identity verification documents, even after they already attached those documents in a previous email.

“It’s so defeating,” Jenn McDonald said. “I just keep doing what I’m supposed to and they aren’t responding. I’m at the point, quite honestly, that I want to give up.”

Synovia Williams likely wasn’t counted in the state’s publicly reported data, either.

Williams said she first applied for benefits in mid-January, a month before giving birth to her son, Synko. The mother of five said it took the state two weeks to even ask her to verify her identity. She said she sent in the required forms, but her application remained in limbo. She spent up to two hours on hold at times, a screenshot of her phone log shows, only to be told by representatives that they didn’t have any update or timeline for when her application would be processed.

This month, when she called again, she said a representative told her there had been a software issue and she would have to start her application over.

Without benefits coming in, Williams said she missed her March rent payment and her landlord placed an eviction notice on the door of her Southeast Portland home. The risk of eviction prompted her to return from maternity leave to her job as a mental health aide in early April – a month sooner than she had planned. She had wanted to continue breastfeeding her son, but said she’s now giving him formula because it’s too difficult to continue breastfeeding while back at work.

“I’m very frustrated and very devastated,” Williams said. “I thought these three months … I could take the kids to school, get to spend time with my children. Having to go back to work early is very frustrating because I’m not going to get that time, I’m not going to get to bond with the new baby. I was really looking forward to this time. I’ve been crying, I’ve been so stressed out because I just want things to be right.”

The newsroom shared information with the state about the individuals identified in this story. Gipson-King said she couldn’t comment on specific claims without a notarized release form or one signed at an employment department office by each person.

But McDonald and Williams said they received calls from the state this week about their claims. They’ve now been approved.

Williams said she hopes to take more time off, intermittently, to spend with her baby.

Other States Disclose More

To get a fuller picture of the program’s success and failures, The Oregonian/OregonLive filed a public records request in December for the total number of applications the program had received. When the employment department denied that request, the newspaper appealed to the Oregon Department of Justice seeking to compel the agency to release that number.

In a March denial letter, the Department of Justice wrote that “because the Legislature has statutorily entrusted the exercise of this discretion to OED, we lack the authority to compel disclosure in this instance notwithstanding what we perceive to be a real and significant public interest in the figures you seek.”

Titus, the good government advocate, said agencies should be allowed to limit access to some information when it threatens security and individual privacy, “but in this case, there doesn’t appear to be a strong reason to deny a public records request. It may be necessary to tighten up their broad public records exemption to ensure that it’s not misused.”

Gipson-King said in an email the employment department doesn’t release information about the total number of claims received because it believes that information could put the program at greater risk of fraud. She said the agency has no evidence of criminals using information about Paid Leave Oregon to refine their attacks and intends “to keep it that way by not giving them information they can use.”

She could not point to any examples where a paid leave program operating in another state saw fraud attempts increase or become more sophisticated after officials made the total number of claims public, although she pointed to several news articles about high levels of fraud detected in other states’ unemployment programs.

Gipson-King said the agency will publish a report in the first quarter of 2025 that will include the amount it believes the program paid out to fraudsters, but not the total number of suspected fraud attempts. She said at that point the agency believes enough time will have elapsed to mitigate the risk to its fund. As the program matures, she said the department will also explore more ways it can safely share additional information with the public.

“We believe sharing the complete number of applications, including the number of those that were filed fraudulently, puts our trust fund and benefits for legitimate customers at risk, because the people committing fraud can reverse engineer the numbers to discern which of their tactics are working and which are not,” Gipson-King said. “They can also tell how quickly our fraud prevention and detection tools are working.”

Oregon may be alone in that belief.

The Oregonian/OregonLive asked the nine other locales – eight states and Washington, D.C. – that are currently paying benefits through a paid leave program if they already release or would disclose the total number of claims they’ve received. Eight provided the newsroom with that number, although three said they didn’t currently have data from 2024 and instead provided numbers from last year. An official for the ninth, New York, instructed the newsroom to file a public records request for the data.

Only two locales, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., were willing to provide information on the number of suspected fraudulent claims they received last year, which in both cases constituted a minuscule percentage of the total applications they received, officials said.

“We are very willing to make (fraud) data available to the public, because transparency will lead to confidence among Rhode Island workers, employers and policymakers that the program is working as intended, and that it is being administered responsibly by the department,” Edwine Paul, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, said in an email.

None of the states said they intentionally shielded from the public the total number of claims received to protect against fraud, nor did any say they had been inundated with fraud attempts.

“The department does not believe that publishing claims data on its public dashboard has an impact on fraud attempts,” Chris Barron, a spokesperson for the Washington Employment Security Department, said in an email.

Oregon officials say they have experienced a significant threat of fraud since the program launched last year, although it’s unclear how frequent fraud attempts are because state officials refuse to publicly quantify them. Humelbaugh, the director, has said the program is aware of many workers and employers receiving paperwork for fraudulent claims.

East Portland resident Benjamin Jaeger said he started receiving letters in the mail last fall indicating he had applied for paid leave and had to verify his identity. Jaeger hadn’t applied, but he said alerting the agency took time because its phone line was constantly busy.

Three months after fraudsters first tried to use his name to obtain benefits, Jaeger said it happened again. He said he has received maybe 30 letters in total from the employment department related to several fraudulent claims made on his behalf.

“I don’t have a great grasp on what the threat to me was at the time or what the ongoing risk is to me still,” he said. “I have some assurance the system is working but the communication from them was lacking.”

Lawmakers Defer to Agency

Oregon lawmakers have the power to make employment department data subject to public disclosure but chose to shield it. It’s unclear if they’ll reconsider.

When crafting the paid leave bill in 2019, it appears lawmakers wanted to ensure sensitive personal and medical data about individual applicants wasn’t made public. But a broad exemption was added to the bill at the request of the employment department without any public discussion, a review of meetings at the time shows.

An amendment introduced in the House Committee on Rules, chaired then by Rep. Paul Holvey, D- Eugene, included a confidentiality section that made “all information” in the program confidential and exempt from public disclosure, granting the director of the employment department sole discretion over what information to release. The language mirrors a broad exception that lawmakers have long granted to the employment department, which allowed it to shield information about unemployment fraud benefits during the pandemic.

Holvey said the exemption is meant to protect privacy and prevent too much disclosure about fraud frequency. “I assume the department is following best practices for privacy, data protection, and fraud prevention,” he said in an email.

Gov. Tina Kotek, who was then-House Speaker, championed the paid leave legislation and voted in favor of the bill with the broad confidentiality exemption included. Anca Matica, a spokesperson for Kotek, said the governor would now “support a review of that exemption should the Legislature be interested in taking it up in the 2025 legislative session.”

Leadership in the House and Senate were less decisive.

Senate President Rob Wagner, D- Lake Oswego, said in a statement that government agencies must protect private personal information but that he would “encourage all government agencies to be as transparent with the public as possible.” New House Speaker Julie Fahey, D- Eugene, said the employment department needs to be equipped to protect and safely store its data but that lawmakers “must continue to work on finding a balance between ensuring access to public records and protecting individuals’ sensitive private information.”

Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D- Portland, was a chief sponsor of the paid leave bill. In an email, she commended the employment department for its incredible effort launching the program and said she expects officials to consider changes as the program grows and becomes more established.

She declined to say if she believes it’s appropriate for the agency to publicly withhold the number of applications it has received but pledged to work with officials to ensure “appropriate transparency.”

“My fellow legislators and I will continue to work closely with the department to ensure Paid Leave data is readily accessible while also protecting individuals’ privacy,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, some Oregonians are continuing to wait for benefits meant to get them through the most stressful and difficult times of their life.

Green, the engineer, went on leave last fall to care for his dying mother. It wasn’t until he returned home following her death that he learned his application had lapsed during the identity verification process and Paid Leave Oregon had deleted his account. Green said he was focused on caring for his mother and doesn’t believe he missed any deadlines to submit documentation, but he couldn’t be sure.

When he finally reached the agency by phone, a representative told him it was an easy fix that would be resolved in a few days. But no one from the program ever followed up. He spent hours calling the agency to try to sort out the problem, phone logs show, sometimes getting disconnected after more than an hour on hold.

His monthslong saga wouldn’t have been captured in the public data the agency releases since his application wasn’t considered verified during that time. He said he wonders how many other Oregonians have similar stories who aren’t being reflected in the state’s statistics.

Green said he was able to reapply after his account was finally unlocked in March. But the program recently alerted him that he needed to get his mother’s doctors to fill out a different form for his benefits to be approved.

He still hasn’t received any money.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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