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Workers’ Comp Review Too Slow in Bringing Change, Says Labour Federation

WorkSafeBC report submitted in October, but recommendations still secret.

Andrew MacLeod 31 Jan 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

The BC Federation of Labour has urged the provincial government to release a controversial report on improvements to supports for workers who get hurt or sick on the job.

The report was submitted to Labour Minister Harry Bains in October, but there’s been no indication when the government will release the report to the public or act on it.

"It’s a substantial and detailed report so time is needed for government’s review," a ministry spokesperson said earlier this month. "The intention is to release the report once government’s review process is completed."

The BC Federation of Labour provided a statement from President Laird Cronk saying the review was long overdue.

"The BCFED hopes the report will be made public as soon as possible," Cronk said. "On behalf of injured workers and their advocates, the BCFED has expressed its concerns directly to government about the delayed release."

The Workers Compensation Board, or WorkSafeBC, is mandated to promote safe and healthy workplaces, support rehabilitation of people injured at work and provide compensation to replace lost wages.

The B.C. government revised two other key pieces of labour legislation last year, strengthening Employment Standards and updating the Labour Relations Code.

But the Workers’ Compensation Board review has proved more controversial.

In April the government appointed a retired labour lawyer, Janet Patterson, to review WCB and make recommended changes to make the system more worker-centred.

"The review will consider any steps that may be required to increase the confidence of workers and employers in the system, and whether there are any other improvements that could be made," the announcement said.

A public engagement process last summer included hearings in 14 communities and generated more than 70 written submissions from unions, employers, business associations and other stakeholders.

In its submission, the BC Federation of Labour traced problems in the system to 2002 when the former BC Liberal government responded to an "aggressive" lobbying effort from employers by making significant changes.

"These changes included unprecedented concessions proffered under the myth of a financially unsustainable system," the submission said.

They hurt occupational health and safety and undermined fair compensation for injured workers and their dependents, it said. "In the 18 years that have followed, the situation has devolved from bad to worse."

Cronk told The Tyee that the government "ended lifelong pensions for injured workers, reduced wage loss benefits by 13 per cent and slashed the vocational rehabilitation budget by a stunning 98 per cent."

"The draconian changes created a system that was complex and difficult to navigate for injured workers, their advocates and WCB staff," he added.

The former government removed labour representatives from the WCB board of directors, leading to a change in culture that put too much emphasis on satisfying employers, the BCFED submission to Patterson’s review said. "Senior management proudly refer to the Board as an employers’ insurance system — protecting the employers’ interests and advocating to return any ‘surplus’ to employers, is top of their agenda."

Employers now strongly resist reforms, the submission continued. "This new regime of the employers’ entitled supremacy has become so entrenched into the employer community, as well as the Board senior leadership and staff, that any assertion that workers should have equal influence in the system and equal, active participation in workplace health and safety, is met with shock, confusion, outrage and fear."

The federation advocated using the $2.9-billion surplus at WCB to raise benefits to cover 100 per cent of lost earnings, increase payments to keep up with inflation, and continue pensions for life for permanently injured workers, along with other changes.

For their part, employers initially participated in the review process despite expressing doubts about it from the start and eventually left it as a group in August.

The Employers’ Forum, representing 46 business associations, made a 38-page submission in July that criticized the terms of reference for Patterson’s review as being vague and open to interpretation.

It also argued that any recommendations should be made with an eye on what cost they might add to the system. "A balance must be drawn between the level of benefit entitlement for disabled workers and the costs to Employers of funding the system, and that this balancing of interests is predicated on disabled workers receiving fair (but not full) protection against economic loss."

Like several other stakeholder submissions, it referred to the "historic compromise" that underlies the WCB system, where both employees and employers gave up the right to sue in exchange for a predictable, no-fault method of determining how much support an injured worker is entitled to.

Other submissions, like the 37-page one from labour law firm Harrison O’Leary, included a call for a change in WCB culture. "It’s demeaning and humiliating to a worker who is disabled from working, maybe for the first time in his or her life, to be treated like they are dishonest and untrustworthy, and trying to rip-off the system," it said.

"We cannot relate the countless times we have spoken to older workers who have 25 or 30 years of a solid work record behind them, who have told us about being lectured to about ‘responsibility’ by young case managers who don’t seem to realize that they are there to serve workers."

A submission from B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke said his office gets hundreds of complaints a year about WCB and that changes to legislation his office recommended in 2010, and which the board agreed were needed, had never been made.

When the 46 employer groups pulled out of the process in August, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses noted in a statement posted on its website that Patterson had been the co-author of a 2009 report for the BC Federation of Labour, Adding Insult to Injury - Changes to the BC Workers’ Compensation System (2002 - 2008): The Impact on Injured Workers, and said proposals she had included in a memo to participants after the consultation closed were the same as ones made in the earlier report.

"Any hint of ‘good faith’ ended once the submission due date passed," the CFIB said. "It seemed the reviewer was cherry-picking feedback, and seemingly ignoring submissions made by employer groups and the business community."

The CFIB balked at recommendations that would allow board decisions to be reopened, raise the amount paid to injured workers and change the rules around employers accommodating injured workers returning to their jobs.

"If accepted by the province, the proposals would add enormous costs to the system," it said. The group encouraged supporters to contact Minister Bains to complain about the "biased, broken" review.

Bains was unavailable for an interview. In November, the Times Colonist newspaper quoted him saying he had agreed to a request from employers for another, more structured, consultation. There would be one consultation process on two earlier reports on WCB, then a later one on Patterson’s report, he said.

Cronk said the BCFED and other advocates for injured workers have been fighting since 2002 to reinstate lost benefits and create a more balanced system that "treats injured workers with the compassion, dignity and respect they deserve."

It had welcomed the appointment of Patterson to review the system and the opportunity to participate in the public consultation. "For the first time in decades, injured workers and their families had an opportunity to tell stories of their injuries and their experiences interacting with the WCB," Cronk said.

"More pointedly, injured workers and their families stepped up in the belief that their horrendous experiences would move government to make changes."  [Tyee]

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