Three years after she conducted a major review of the compensation system for injured workers in British Columbia, Janet Patterson says she’s dismayed that the provincial government has failed to do more to improve the system.
Hundreds of injured workers and many of their family members spoke during that process about their experiences with the Workers’ Compensation Board, or WorkSafeBC, with many sharing emotional stories of how the system had failed them.
“The thing about the delay that I find most distressing is how disrespectful it is to those people that there hasn’t even been an answer or recognition of that input,” Patterson said in an interview. “That adds to the kind of experience they’ve had through the compensation system, which actually made things worse for many of them.”
WCB is mandated to promote safe and healthy workplaces, support rehabilitation of people injured at work and provide compensation to replace lost wages.
Many British Columbians interact with the system every year. In 2020, WCB received reports of nearly 130,000 injuries and accepted more than 45,000 short-term disability claims.
And while WCB says more than four out of five injured workers surveyed in 2021 rated their overall experience with the agency as “good” or “very good,” that leaves a significant number of people who give it worse ratings.
Almost 2,000 people a year complain about their experience to either WCB, the B.C. ombudsperson or MLA constituency offices.
The NDP formed government in 2017 believing the system had serious problems and needed to be rebalanced to better meet the needs of workers. Among other steps, in 2019 the Labour Ministry appointed Patterson, a retired labour lawyer, to review WCB and provide recommendations.
The public engagement process she oversaw received 70 written submissions from unions, employers, business associations and other stakeholders. She also held hearings in 14 communities where people could share their experiences.
“Many of these people took time off work, they drove long distances, sometimes family members would come and support each other because it was really difficult,” said Patterson.
In some cases people felt they were taking a risk to participate. There were concerns, especially in small communities, about sharing personal details around physical and mental health.
“There were a lot of barriers and people came forward,” Patterson said.
Participants sometimes included the spouses and children of injured workers who spoke about how they as well had been affected by WCB’s actions. The presentations often turned into conversations and Patterson said that over the five weeks of hearings, she heard many difficult stories from presenters.
“A number of them came up to me or wrote afterwards to thank me and said it was really one of the first times they felt they were being heard,” she said, “so it was a really important exercise and I hope it wasn’t just an exercise.”
Some of the participants described how WCB had helped, but others told about experiences where the board’s involvement made their injury worse or their recovery more difficult. In many cases, simple changes from WCB would have led to better outcomes.
“Those are the ones that tend to stay with me,” Patterson said.
More than half of the 200 participants gave permission for her to look at their WCB claim files, providing further insight into how the system was functioning.
Her 517-page report, "New Directions: Report of the WCB Review 2019," included 102 recommendations, many of which require changes to provincial laws and WorkSafeBC 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.
After submitting the report to the government, Patterson declined media interviews, wanting to give the Labour Ministry time to act. Now, she said, there’s been plenty of time but little has changed.
The government did make some changes through legislation in 2020.
“Some of those changes were recommended in my report, but others weren’t, and it really didn’t touch on key recommendations in my report,” Patterson said.
“The delay has been too long,” said Paul Petrie, who wrote a separate report, “Restoring the Balance: A Worker-Centred Approach to Workers’ Compensation Policy,” for WorkSafeBC in 2018 reviewing the agency’s policies.
Petrie — who is the former vice-chair of the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal — and Patterson spoke together with The Tyee via video call.
“It took [Patterson] seven months to put that report in the hands of the minister,” Petrie said, “and since he’s received it I think it’s been... about two years and seven months and I’ve been waiting patiently to see if there’s been any signal about what the ministry intends to do.”
The BC Federation of Labour, the umbrella group for some 500,000 unionized workers in the province, has also criticized the government for moving too slowly and has been pressing for significant changes to WCB.
B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains said that more changes are coming based on what the ministry has heard from Patterson and others.
“We are working, guided by a number of reports,” Bains said. “We’re looking at all those areas we need to improve, and those are the areas we’re looking at right now.”
He referred to a December 2021 statement he made saying the reports on WCB from Patterson and Petrie, as well as reports from Vancouver lawyer Lisa J. Helps and researcher Terrance J. Bogyo, would guide the changes.
But legislation to make the changes was not introduced in the spring session of the legislature that ended last week and Bains couldn’t say when it would be coming.
“Timing is difficult because we have still a lot of work to do,” he said.
Meanwhile injured workers continue to share stories about negative experiences with WCB. In April, The Tyee published a story about Sharon Cager, an overdose outreach worker in Vancouver who, after being assaulted at work, found interacting with WCB was making her recovery more stressful.
One of Patterson’s key recommendations was to redesign the dispute resolution system, creating an external fair practices commission that would operate more like an ombudsperson with a wide enough mandate to address systemic issues. Currently there’s an internal complaint process that is relatively limited.
“That hasn’t been addressed at all and there’s been not even a whiff of comment about that,” Patterson said.
She also recommended creating a medical services office that would arrange independent medical exams and case conferences to better resolve disputes. It’s a recommendation she says goes hand-in-hand with patient-centred care.
That means an injured worker would be treated by the caregiver they choose and that WCB’s supervision of the treatment plan would be kept to a minimum. As Patterson put it in her report, “Medical evidence must be accessible and credible and medical disputes resolved quickly, ideally through collaboration.”
Workers who have a say in their treatment, rehabilitation and return to work tend to do better, she said.
Patterson made several recommendations aimed at making people’s return to work safer and more likely to be for the long term, which she says would be better for both employers and workers.
“Many of the horror stories about disposable workers and workers that are just homeless or addicted to pain [medications] because they’ve been forced back to work is one of the key issues,” she said.
She mentioned a report B.C. ombudsperson Jay Chalke released last year, "Severed Trust: Enabling WorkSafeBC to Do the Right Thing When Its Mistakes Hurt Injured Workers," that told the story of a cabinet maker who was injured a second time after WCB forced him back to work too soon.
Through the engagement process Patterson heard many similar stories, she said, where the culture of pushing workers to return to work resulted in worse outcomes.
Petrie said that Severed Trust illustrated the lack of accountability at WCB and shows why a Fair Practices Commission is needed. There are systemic issues with accountability that need to be addressed by improving the structure itself, he said.
“Without that change we’re going to continue to have the drive towards an insurance agency rather than what the legislation was designed to provide, which is a system that provides support for rehabilitation of injured workers and fair compensation,” he said. “That’s not happening under the current structure to the extent that it’s needed.”
Patterson said there needs to be more protection for workers who fear they’ll be discriminated against, or lose their job, if they file a complaint or claim with WCB.
There’s also an issue with how the case management system tends to guide decision-makers and medical advisers based on how long someone with a particular injury would normally need to recover and return to work, leaving little flexibility to account for an individual’s circumstances, she said.
People needing longer than expected get streamed into the appeal system instead. For some, that adds delay and costs, and for others it becomes a barrier to getting help.
“Even if they’re successful, they often feel terribly bruised through that process. Their credibility’s questioned,” Patterson said. “Getting something a year-and-a-half or two years after you need it is not the same. It’s the ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ problem.”
Others who need help never file an appeal.
“Many workers just don’t do it and they are out of the system and out of financial security and there’s just a growing evidence of the number of injured workers who are filling the rolls of homelessness, food banks, opioid addiction,” said Patterson.
It’s a shift she, Petrie and others trace to changes the provincial government made in 2002 so that WCB would act more like an insurance system and less like it was originally meant to.
WCB is funded by premiums paid by employers and investment income. Sometimes referred to as the “historic compromise,” 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 ministry has signalled that reforms are coming, but it’s not clear what they’ll be or when they’ll be made, Petrie said.
“Janet heard from a lot of workers around the province who put their stories on the line in a public way and they’re still waiting,” Petrie said.
People shared their stories with hope and expectation that the process would lead to significant change, he added.
“That hope is I’m sure long faded. It’s a sad situation that they had expectations and those expectations haven’t been met.”
While there are other issues to address, including around claim suppression, Petrie said, the priority should be on Patterson’s report as a way to correct WCB’s drift towards an insurance agency model.
“That report is the transformational piece that’s desperately needed at this point,” he said.
In Part Two next week, one family’s bitter experience with WCB.