Employers nervous about Alberta WCB review

By Bob Barnetson

Alberta is reviewing it workers’ compensation system for the first time in 15 years. A few weeks ago, Merit Contractors started a campaign with the basic message is that business is opposed to increased operating costs:twitter_1500x500_rev_3

The government’s intended direction is clear: it wants to make it easier to file claims and expand the number of claims that are covered. As a result, WCB premiums are inevitably going to go up.

Together with the carbon tax and minimum wage hike, this is yet another cost for small businesses at a time when they simply can’t afford it. Some will be able to bear the burden, but others won’t. 

Business owners who have spent years building their dream may watch it slip away. Ordinary Albertans will suffer too, with even more people losing their jobs.

This campaign is pretty typical of the corporate-conservative pushback against the New Democrats. Whether such a campaign resonates with employers is an open question. It paints employers as more concerned with their bottom line than their employees’ health and well-being. Supporting this campaign doesn’t exactly scream “we’re an employer of choice”.

Last week, the review panel released an interim progress report. Its consultation has generated about 2000(!) responses so far and a final report is due in April. A key theme the committee has flagged is a purported shift away from the Meredith principles and towards an insurance model as a source of a number of difficulties. That sounds quite abstract and bloodless, until you read down a few pages and get to this paragraph (I’ve broken the text up a bit to facilitate reading–it is worth your time).

There are people who describe their experiences with the WCB claims process in positive terms. Many others describe their experiences in very negative terms, such as “disrespectful”, “angering”, “frustrating” and even “dehumanizing”.

A widespread view is that the WCB operates its claims process in a way that presumes injured workers are lying about their injuries or illnesses, and looks for any possible reason to deny an injured worker’s claim, lower their compensation, refuse their requests and “cut them off”.

Some feel the WCB deliberately makes its process complex so that injured workers will abandon their claims out of frustration. For example, it is said the WCB will demand injured workers obtain information (such as notes from physicians) to “prove” their condition and its relationship to their employment, only to be told the information they have provided is “still not good enough”.

Others feel the WCB’s culture is focused on saving money rather than compensating injured workers. They say this is evident in the way some WCB personnel display rudeness and a lack of compassion when communicating with injured workers and managing their claims.

Still others characterize the WCB as a bully, saying it abuses its authority by routinely threatening to terminate workers’ benefits if they dare to question its demands. Compounding this, it is said that the WCB’s decision- making process is not clear to people, which further fuels distrust, anger and frustration. (p.7)

The committee also flagged presumptive status, an employer obligation to accommodate returning workers in a meaningful way, and the WCB’s approach to return-to-work (RTW) as issues requiring more attention. On RTW:

Sometimes workers are assessed as ready to return even though they do not personally feel ready, or their personal physician says they are not ready, or the employer believes they are not ready. Some people say that the WCB ignores such concerns and deems the worker fit to return anyway.

This forces the worker to make a choice between losing their benefits or returning to the workforce and risking their health; and it forces the employer to re-integrate a worker whom they believe should not be there and might pose a safety risk to others. (p.10)

On benefits and premiums, the committee notes:

  1. The current insurable earnings cap may need review.
  2. Earnings might be calculated more inclusively.
  3. The process by which the WCB deems workers to be earning money (and thus cuts their benefits) may be problematic.
  4. WCB premium incentive schemes may drive undesirable employer behaviour.

 
These topics will likely raise some eyebrows at Merit. That said, I don’t think that Merit can reasonably claim WCB premiums will be going up if even if radical changes were implemented.

I say this because the WCB annually rebates hundreds of millions of dollars to employers (e.g., $507m in 2015 and $467m in 2016) based on accumulated surpluses. Employers may not get a big surplus cheque each year, but premiums will likely stay stable.

Overall, I thought the interim report was very even-handed. It gave voice to a number of important worker criticisms of how the WCB operates that the Tories managed to stifle for the last 20 years. It delved into systemic issues that reinforce the insurance culture of the WCB (premium schemes). Yet it makes no promises and draws no conclusions as the consultation is still going on.

One way to read the tea leaves of this report is that major changes in the culture and operation of the WCB may be required. If I were a Board member or senior executive in the WCB (i.e., the people who set the direction and tone), the implicit condemnation of the WCB’s approach in this report might make me a bit nervous. I wonder what kind of push-back the review committee is getting from the WCB?

This piece was first published on the website Labour & Employment in Alberta.

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