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New state paid leave manager takes long view of program

Katie Tabeling

Paid Family Medical Leave program manager Chris Counihan. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF LABOR

WILMINGTON — Two decades earlier, Chris Counihan was the first person hired in German insurance company Allianz Partners’ division geared to benefits for internationally mobile workers. But after 9/11, that changed the interest for expatriates traveling on business.

Now, working as Delaware’s manager of the forthcoming Paid Family Medical Leave program, he sees it almost as a second chance to play a part in building something game-changing in the insurance market.

“My one regret in that field is that I wasn’t able to finish the task to build that out. I wanted to launch it and compete, especially against my old employers,” he told the Delaware Business Times. “Now I get the chance to put a program together, and watch it happen. It’s making something tangible that helps people.”

Hired in late August, Counihan is tasked with drafting, workshopping, and finalizing the state social insurance program that is set to pay out claims beginning Jan. 1, 2026. The Healthy Delaware Families Act guarantees up to 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents or those seeking medical leave — funded through a 0.8% tax split between the employees and the employer.

Counihan is an insurance veteran, as his resume includes roles with American International Group, Cigna, and Allianz partners before he launched a career in academia. After receiving his master’s and doctorate degrees in international relations and migration, he taught at Immaculata University, West Chester University, Rowan University and the University of Delaware. In 2019, he worked as a legislative aide for New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham.

“Typically with an insurance program, you have to have the rates sufficient to pay for the claims to administer the program. In private practice, you’re hoping for a profit — but here we’re aiming for breakeven,” he said. “That gives us a tighter window. But besides that, we have to make sure it’s being paid properly, so we have to communicate the details with not just the employers, but make sure the detailers are getting to the employees who manage the process.”

In the next three years before employees can access the benefits, Counihan has to finalize the regulations to govern the program. He’s been studying the Healthy Delaware Families Act to find the missing pieces that would take it from the law drafted, approved and signed by the governor to a working system.

The Department of Labor recently released a request for information on best practices for the paid family and medical leave program to the state Office of Budget and Management.

“There’s 11 different jurisdictions that have done this, and three other states that are considering it. But it’s also not that different compared to other income replacement programs like short-term disability,” Counihan said. “We want to get it right the first time, because once it’s in place, it’s such a large system that changing it while it’s going forward is like working on a car while driving.”

California has had a paid leave program for at least 20 years, and New Jersey has offered temporary disability insurance since the 1940s, he added.

The Healthy Delaware Families Act mandates that Jan. 1, 2024 is the last date for employers to opt out of the state plan and enroll in a similar program from private insurance or secure a surety bond if they’re self-insured. But Counihan’s timeline is even shorter: he estimates that he has to finish the regulations by February 2023 and receive approval from the Office of Registrar of Regulations to enact them. The approval could take up to 70 days.

“We want to give employers at least three months, preferably six months to look at the private plans on the marketplace and make the decision,” he said. 

Tax collections for the state paid family and medical leave program will begin on Jan. 1, 2025.

Looking ahead, Counihan believes the biggest challenge will be getting smaller companies to understand the new law and their options. All companies with 10 or more employees are automatically enrolled in the state’s program and would have to opt out.

Since the federal Family and Medical Leave Act was signed in 1993, companies with 50 or more employees should be used to the process. But companies with at least 10 employees have never been required to provide that benefit before. 

In Delaware, 21% of all employees work for companies with at least 10 employees and at most 49 employees, according to the Department of Labor’s Office of Occupational & Labor Market Information. That translates to 91,592 people who have not had coverage under FMLA. A quarter of employers, or 8,470, in the state have between 10 and 49 employees.

“We want to make sure those people are being administered to as well, so the biggest test of this division is how do we help them?” he asked. “If this becomes a massive burden, then we’ve just shifted our expenses on the employees, that’s not fair. So we want to make sure we create as many tools for employers, their benefits consultants, payroll providers and others that they can use to administer this program as easily as possible.”

“The most important thing for this program to work is to have the help and support from employers,” he added. “Our process is to help them do that job.”

If employers have any questions, they can contact Counihan at PFML@Delaware.gov.

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