Oregon Governor Set to Sign Paid Family Leave Mandate

The Oregon capitol building in Salem.

SALEM, Ore. (CN) – Oregon will soon have the most progressive paid family leave law in the country, as Gov. Kate Brown wraps up legislative loose ends by signing that bill and vetoing others that environmentalists said would be detrimental.

Beginning in 2023, Oregon will guarantee 12 weeks of paid family leave for new parents, workers caring for sick family members or those recovering from their own illness.

Washington, D.C. and eight other states have laws guaranteeing paid family leave. The federal Family Medical Leave Act guarantees only unpaid leave to new parents for up to 12 weeks and allows employers to choose whether they want to pay workers for that time off.

Oregon’s law is unique in allowing workers to define their families. It extends coverage to spouses and domestic partners, siblings, parents and grandparents, and “any individual related by blood or affinity whose close association with a covered individual is the equivalent of a family relationship.”

In testimony before the House Committee on Rules, Ava Kamb, organizer with Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, said moving beyond the traditional nuclear family is important to extending benefits to Asians and Pacific Islanders, two of Oregon’s fastest growing groups.

“Policies that narrowly define ‘family’ exclude our communities from laws, programs, and benefits, which is why an inclusive family definition for paid family and medical leave is an important step to ensure that all of our families are able to access this critical insurance program.”

The law also covers leave for workers to recover from or seek help for domestic violence, harassment, sexual assault or stalking.

It will take effect when a new statewide insurance fund based on contributions from workers and employers is expected to have built sufficient capital. Businesses with 25 or fewer employees won’t have to contribute.

Gov. Brown hasn’t said when she will sign the bill into law, but she did announce the bills she will likely veto – including two with interesting environmental implications.

House Bill 2437 would have allowed farmers to remove up to 3,000 cubic yards of earth from intermittent streams that they could then dump into healthy wetlands – and let them do it with zero state oversight. Current law allows farmers trying to drain their fields to remove only 50 cubic yards of earth.

Brown said in her announcement that the bill went too far and could have put the state afoul of federal law regulating wetlands permitting.

“Collectively, these changes could have a significant impact on our wildlife populations and wetland habitats, including potentially adverse effects on our native salmon populations,” Brown said.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Audubon Society of Oregon, said the veto is an important test of the governor’s commitment to the environment, especially in the wake of the dramatic loss of Oregon’s landmark cap-and-trade bill. House Bill 2020 passed the House and was set to sail through the state Senate before Republicans fled the state to prevent the vote that would have sent it to the governor’s desk.

“I give her a lot of credit for this veto,” Sallinger said. “She said she was committed to protecting water resources and now she’s following through on that. But this is a bill that should never have moved forward in the first place. In a legislative session where they failed to address critical topics like climate change, it was disappointing to see them try to roll back environmental regulations. It’s exactly the kind of thing the Trump administration is doing right now – and exactly what shouldn’t be happening under a Democratic supermajority.”

Brown said she might also veto a line item in HB 5050 that would approve $4 million to repair two dams deemed unsafe by the state. The dams, on the Big Creek reservoir in Newport, would likely fail in an earthquake and threaten homes downstream.

But Brown said the issue is much larger than that.

“Oregon currently has no financial plan or rules to help communities with failing dams that pose safety risks,” the governor wrote in her announcement.

She said she proposed $2 million to create a dam safety task force that would have studied all of the state’s 969 nonfederal dams, 72 of which are rated as “high hazard.” The task force would have prioritized repairs and developed rules to finance and plan work.

But the Legislature didn’t fund that proposal.

“As a result, very few high-hazard dams have had a comprehensive assessment of their safety, while our understanding of seismic and flood risks has improved in recent years,” Brown wrote. “I would ask the Legislature to fund both the dam study and the dam safety task force in the February 2020 legislative session so we can proceed quickly in addressing this significant need across the state.”

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