When the B.C. government is back to business, George Kavallis hopes it will act on recommendations received more than a year ago on improving the province’s system for helping injured workers.
“We need real substantive change,” said Kavallis, a 47-year-old in Burnaby who is part of the BC Human Rights Organization that advocates on behalf of injured workers. He was injured on the job three years ago.
“They’ve done very little to really move the dial,” he said.
In August, a few weeks before Premier John Horgan called the early election, the government released retired labour lawyer Janet Patterson’s New Directions: Report of the WCB Review 2019.
Patterson submitted her report to Harry Bains, the labour minister who had commissioned it 10 months earlier. The 517-page report followed a public engagement process that included hearings in 14 communities and more than 70 written submissions from unions, employers, business associations and other stakeholders.
The report includes 102 recommendations, many of which require changes to provincial laws and WorkSafe BC policy.
Overall, they speak to a need for a change of culture that returns the agency to a focus on helping injured workers and treating them with respect and dignity.
Patterson found the system works well for workers with simple injuries who follow a predicted path to recovery.
But it fails many others.
“Through the review consultation process, we heard that workers whose injuries or recovery fell outside the ‘cookie cutter’ guidelines tended to have very negative compensation experiences and outcomes,” she said.
“This was particularly the experience of workers with serious or complex injuries, concussions, psychological injuries or occupational diseases. Such cases often had poor or no investigations, disregarded medical evidence or little communication with the worker before a decision was made.”
Many workers said the process was often adversarial and that they didn’t feel heard throughout it.
“Many reported being spoken to by case managers in hostile or dismissive ways and that they considered themselves abandoned or further injured by the compensation process,” Patterson reported.
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.
It’s funded by premiums paid by employers and investment income. Both employees and employers give up the right to sue in exchange for a predictable no-fault method of determining how much support an injured worker is entitled to.
The Tyee has reported on injured workers like Jaskarn Singh Gill and James Mansell who feel the system is rigged against them and find themselves engaged in long fights with WorkSafeBC for the support they believe they should get.
While waiting for the government to release her report, Patterson produced a 48-page addendum that includes details on some of what she heard during the consultation process.
It tells the story of a worker identified as “C.,” a care aide in a psychiatric ward of a hospital who was sexually assaulted by a male patient she was providing one-on-one care to. Her employer refused her requests for reassignment.
“She describes… utter psychological terror,” the report said. After quitting, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “She describes her mind as broken. It took her weeks to leave her front porch and now, three years later, she is still suffering.”
C.’s claim was accepted by WorkSafeBC, but she described the experience as awful. Staff changed frequently and each “was ruder than the last one and the last one yelled at her,” it said. “None seemed to have read her file and she ended up telling her story eight times.”
Another story included is that of a 30-year-old man — M — who fell from a rooftop and was badly injured three days after returning to work following knee surgery at a private clinic.
“After he got out of the hospital, we would be walking down the street and M’s leg will give out and he would fall down,” his wife is quoted saying. “We told the surgeon and WCB that M’s knee was not stable, but both said that he was fine and that he had to go back to work.”
His supervisor described hearing a pop when M’s knee gave out causing the fall. “This happened just as M was changing his position which requires a brief time out of the construction safety harness,” his wife said. “M almost died from this fall, breaking much of his spine... his sternum and tailbone.”
The addendum included one worker’s observation that while some WCB staff were helpful, “Sadly, the claims division becomes your worst nightmare.”
The agency tries to get people off their books as soon as possible, the worker said. “To accomplish this, they discredit your character and dismiss any medical documentation that supports your symptoms…. Their bullying tactics are counterproductive. Instead of supporting an individual in their recovery, they force you to stay the victim.”
Patterson’s addendum should be mandatory reading for anyone who works in the field, said Laird Cronk, the president of the BC Federation of Labour, the umbrella organization representing some 500,000 workers in the province.
It’s the first time the voices of workers that have been through the system have been respected, he said. “A lot of those folks came out that had some pretty tough experiences and they relived those experiences because they believed that doing so would make a difference. I think government needs to respect those voices, make this a priority.”
Kavallis said he felt vindicated as he read Patterson’s report.
“I think everyone had an idea what was going on, but the fact it’s now substantiated, these aren’t allegations anymore, they’re facts,” he said. “It is broken by design and Janet Patterson’s report clearly exposes that.”
He highlighted sections that found women and Indigenous people living on reserves were much more likely to have their claims rejected and that WCB used to pay its employees bonuses based on goals creating an incentive to deny claims.
“It was eye opening,” he said. “It was very disturbing in some parts.”
In a press release, the BC Human Rights Organization said the Patterson report showed that WCB is selective about the medical evidence it uses and relies on reports from its own doctors — even when they contradict the judgments of medical specialists.
It accused WCB of “fabricating and suppressing evidence, and threatening and/or lying to workers for the purpose of keeping them from monies and services that they are entitled to under the law.”
The organization called for a public inquiry into WorkSafeBC’s operations.
A WorkSafeBC spokesperson said questions about the report’s findings should go to the government, which commissioned it.
A Labour Ministry spokesperson said everything is on hold until the new cabinet is sworn in.
Before the election, Labour Minister Harry Bains released a statement thanking Patterson for her report and stressing his commitment to improving the workers’ compensation system. But he also said the government’s focus would be on implementing changes it had already begun before Patterson reported.
Bains has also previously said he anticipated entering further engagement with stakeholders once the government released Patterson’s report.
There was little mention of WCB in the recent election campaign, including in the NDP’s platform.
But Cronk said the government asked for Patterson’s report and needs to act on it.
“I believe this government will take this seriously and I believe they will take action on it.”