Heather Rowan, with 3-month-old son Theodore, said confusion while applying for Connecticut's paid leave program led to delays in receiving benefits. In the first year, about one-third of applications were denied, and the Connecticut Paid Leave Authority takes responsibility for the issues. The authority plans to update its website to help alleviate the confusion. Mark Mirko | Connecticut Public

When Heather Rowan gave birth to her son, Theodore, she and her husband were eager to take advantage of a new state program that provides paid time off for parents.

Rowan, a social worker from Putnam, says she brought a folder of paid leave materials to the hospital the day she was induced so that she could get their applications in right after Theodore was born.

But when they applied for paid leave, they ran into an unexpected obstacle: Rowan’s husband didn’t have the right paperwork.

“It wasn’t quite clear exactly what was needed,” Rowan said.

Her husband’s application was denied the first go-around. And the couple’s experience wasn’t unique.

It’s been a little over a year since the Connecticut paid leave program started accepting applications in December 2021. Within the first year, the program paid out close to $250 million in benefits.

But a review by The Accountability Project found that the program served far fewer workers than state officials anticipated during its inaugural year. Around one-third of all applications to the program were rejected, excluding those that are pending. State records show that missing or incomplete paperwork accounted for the majority of denials.

The state is also streamlining the process for new parents, eliminating a stumbling block that required them to apply for two types of leave in order to receive full benefits.

The program allows new parents, caregivers, people recovering from illness and other qualifying employees to receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave.

In 2019, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed a law enacting the program. It’s funded through a 0.5% payroll deduction, and once approved, applicants receive a percentage of their regular pay each week during their leave period.

Madeline Granato is the policy director for the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund. Her organization leads the Campaign for Paid Family Leave, which helped advocate for the paid leave program’s creation.

“It took nearly a decade to make paid family medical leave a reality in Connecticut,” Granato said.

But the rollout came with flaws. According to the Connecticut Paid Leave 2022 annual report, within the first six months of benefits being paid out, 40% of applicants were denied. Within the first year it was 32%.

That stands in contrast to much lower denial rates among private companies that offered their own paid leave plans. Those that responded to a state survey last year indicated they denied less than 5% of all applications for paid leave filed by their workers during the first quarter of 2022, according to the Paid Leave Authority’s annual report.

Experts also projected that Connecticut’s program would have much higher utilization than it did during its inaugural year. A cost analysis generated for the authority previously projected the program would approve an estimated 83,911 claims per year, based on claims activity in three other states that offer paid leave. The actual number of approvals stood at 57,491 through the end of last year, according to state records. An additional 30,430 claims were denied.

State officials say they expect those approval numbers to increase as public awareness of the program builds. They’re also implementing fixes to clear up confusion for parents.

Under the current application system, when someone is pregnant, they have to apply for two types of leave to get the full benefit of 12 weeks of paid time off: medical leave, used to recover from pregnancy; and bonding leave, used to bond with the baby.

That’s been confusing for some parents.Skye Andrew applied for the paid leave program before giving birth to her first born, Maisie. She researched the application process long before it came time to apply.

Skye Andrew, an executive office manager and former teacher, said complications with the application process for the state’s paid leave program led to delays in receiving income after her child was born. Mark Mirko | Connecticut Public

When she went to apply online, the site was glitchy. She called and applied over the phone with the third-party vendor that processes the claims, Aflac.

A few weeks later, she got an email saying her application was approved, but she didn’t get the leave she expected. A review of the records by The Accountability Project shows that her application was submitted incorrectly because it requested only one type of leave and not the other, leaving her with less time off than she expected.

We reached out to Aflac for a comment and did not get a response.

Andrew called a second time to resolve the issue.

“I spoke to someone different who said, ‘Well, I see here you don’t have the medical leave portion applied for,’” Andrew said. “I thought, ‘What's that?’ I applied for pregnancy leave, I didn’t know about anything else.”

Choquette told The Accountability Project that starting sometime in the first quarter of this year, this type of leave will be processed as one claim instead of two to clear up this confusion.

“There were sort of logical reasons to keep them as separate claims,” Choquette said. “But in practice, it was very cumbersome. We heard that from a lot of people so we’re changing the process.”

By the time Andrew had her application corrected, she had gone more than two months without getting paid.

“Sometimes our approval process took a really long time,” Choquette said. “So, we really did have some significant delays in the beginning where they didn't get their money until several weeks in.”

The Connecticut Paid Leave 2022 annual report showed that within the first six months of the program paying benefits, 50% of applications were for an employee’s own injury or illness.

The town of Canaan had the most claim applications per capita, followed by Hampton and Ansonia.

Only a small number of states offer paid family and medical leave programs, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington, California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

There are other states with legislation approved, but programs are not yet operating.

Granato says she’s confident that the Connecticut Paid Leave Authority can make the necessary changes to smooth out the application process.

“It's frustrating, especially if you’re going through that process,” Granato said. “But overall, these kind of hiccups along the road are understandable in a program's first year, and they’re to be expected.”

This story was originally published Feb. 1, 2023, by Connecticut Public.