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January 11, 2021

Barton Reeves aims for smooth rollout of CT paid-leave program

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever Andrea Barton Reeves, CEO of the Connecticut Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Authority.

Employee payroll deductions that will fund Connecticut’s impending paid-leave program have officially begun, and could raise as much as $400 million over the next 12 months.

But paid-leave overseer Andrea Barton Reeves has plenty to worry about in 2021 besides simply collecting the money.

Barton Reeves, a former nonprofit executive who became CEO of the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance Authority one year ago, is now halfway to the state legislature’s tight deadline for launching benefits by Jan. 2022, and there’s lots to do to ensure the program’s rollout isn’t bogged down by technical glitches, delays or a confused populace.

In a recent interview, Barton Reeves said one of the most important tasks ahead this year for the authority’s modest eight-person team and board of directors is hiring a vendor to provide and operate a claims-administration system, a crucial piece of technology that will ensure eligible benefit-claims are processed quickly once they start rolling in during the final months of 2021.

“We want to make sure that runs as smoothly as possible,” Barton Reeves said.

This profile is part of HBJ’s 5 to Watch in 2021 special feature. Click here to see other top leaders we expect to make headlines in the year ahead.

Another major role for the authority will be communicating with workers and companies about their rights and responsibilities under the program in anticipation of its full launch next January.

That will represent a shift from the outreach the authority has already been doing to ensure companies understand their duties to collect and remit the payroll contributions, provide information to employees, and even hold an in-house election to determine whether workers prefer to join the state-run program or opt for equivalent (or better) private-leave insurance.

Barton Reeves has also been doing everything in her power to ensure no employee is blindsided by the 0.5% payroll contributions that just kicked in.

In recent months, she has done numerous media interviews, and the authority has run approximately 60 webinars for employers and industry groups from around the state.

“We know it’s working because we’re seeing an enormous uptick on our website, especially on the employees’ page,” she said.

Still, it’s been less of a road show than she initially envisioned a year ago when Gov. Ned Lamont — a key champion of the paid-leave program — announced she would lead the authority. Less than two months into her new role, COVID-19 was detected in Connecticut for the first time.

The situation has made it harder to grab peoples’ attention and has limited the authority’s outreach strategy.

“If we were pre-pandemic we would be all over the state traveling from one end to the other,” Barton Reeves said.

The authority’s steady outreach efforts will likely lead to a smoother transition to the payroll tax, but she expects at least a little blowback over the next few months.

“There will inevitably be someone who doesn’t know,” she said.

For those who are irked, her strategy is to explain what the money is buying them: The ability to take needed time off to treat a serious health condition, or care for a sick family member or new child, among other qualifying scenarios, without having to potentially sacrifice their financial well-being.

Connecticut’s paid-leave program — one of the most generous in the country — provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave, at 95% of average weekly pay capped at about $720 per week to start and rising with the minimum wage.

Forging ahead, despite some calls to delay

Republicans opposed the creation of a state-run, paid-leave program in 2019, and in November, incoming GOP leaders called on Lamont to halt the program’s implementation until it could prove its solvency.

With Democrats controlling the House and Senate it’s unlikely the program will be delayed.

In a recent interview, Lamont said he remains confident in the value of the program and wouldn’t support any changes that would delay or weaken it.

“We’ve said that if for some reason our estimates aren’t right, we will adjust the benefits, we won’t raise the [payroll tax] rates,” Lamont said. “I think we set it up in a smart way.”

An updated analysis last year by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and WildFig Partners concluded that the paid leave trust fund would have sufficient resources over the coming years, even in more dire scenarios it modeled, including if the unemployment rate remained elevated at 10% for multiple years.

Republican leaders have charged that those two groups are paid-leave advocates and therefore incapable of independent analysis. They want an outside actuarial firm to study the program instead.

Barton Reeves said she’s confident in the report’s conclusions and echoed Lamont’s point that even if the projections are all wrong, the authority can only reduce the benefit levels.

It would take an act of the legislature to increase the employee contribution, or require employers to kick in any money.

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