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Construction sector split on Workers’ Compensation changes in B.C.

Russell Hixson
Construction sector split on Workers’ Compensation changes in B.C.

B.C. trade unions are praising proposed changes to the province’s Workers’ Compensation system, which they say restores balance with compromises the whole industry can live with.

But many employer groups disagree, calling the changes poorly thought out and badly timed. 

“I think the system was skewed over the past few decades,” said Andrew Mercier, executive director for the BC Building Trades. “These changes in many ways could classify as administrative housekeeping but they are hugely significant and, in many ways, help right the balance.”

Some of the changes highlighted by the province’s Bill 23 include:

  • raising the maximum annual salary amount on which Workers’ Compensation benefits are based;
  • authorizing WorkSafeBC (WSBC) to provide preventative medical treatment before a claim is accepted;
  • giving powers to the court to issue WorkSafeBC search and seizure warrants that are appropriate for investigating workplace safety infractions; and
  • giving people the ability to give victim impact statements in workplace prosecutions and trials.

The legislation will also fast-track the effective date of presumptions for occupational diseases caused by viral pathogens. The presumption would simplify the process for workers who make a Workers’ Compensation claim if they contract viruses on the job.

The province stated this would ensure people who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 at work are able to access benefits more quickly.

“Presumption is hugely important,” said Mercier. “It is a good, common sense change that will allow people to access compensation without having to jump through hoops.”

Mercier also touted new tools to help investigate and prosecute workplace infractions.

“Any way you cut it, these are positive reforms and the most positive changes we have seen in 20 years,” said Mercier. “There are still other changes that are needed, like indexing Workers’ Compensation pensions to the CPI, but that being said, these changes are incredibly positive and will benefit our members and bring more balance.”

But many groups representing employers disagree.

They have sent a letter to government officials outlining their concerns about the scope of the reforms and what they could do to the Workers’ Compensation system. The signatories include the Independent Contractors and Businesses association, the Council of Construction Associations (COCA), the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies -B.C., the Urban Development Institute and more.

“Far from being ‘modest and measured,’ core precepts that kept WSBC financially stable over the last two decades are now being unwound,” reads the letter. “Tabling this Bill adds more uncertainty in the recovery period and long-term costs to WSBC which is paid for through employer premiums. These added costs will impact businesses of all sizes, and their ability to restart, rehire, and contemplate new investment in the province. Ultimately, additional costs through Bill 23 will harm people from all walks of life who have lost, or are on the brink of losing, their livelihoods.”

Dave Baspaly, president of COCA, explained he is not opposed to making changes to the system but feels completely overhauling it is unnecessary. The business community was not given time to give much input and many of the bill’s details cause concern.

One change Baspaly noted was the finality of adjudicated decisions. Section 11 of Bill 23 seeks to amend Section 123 of the act and will provide the board with the authority to reconsider a decision, at any time, if the decision contains “an obvious error or omission.”

In their letter to government, the groups explained while “an obvious error or omission” would seem easy enough to understand, it is not codified as such in the amendments addressing Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal (WCAT) authority.

“When something goes to WCAT, traditionally it’s finished. So you know there is certainty, whatever the outcome,” said Baspaly. “This opens things up to now reach back as far as you want to appeal and be endlessly reopening up cases. That has broken up other systems.”

Baspaly added the construction community has pulled together to keep employees working and safe during the pandemic, which makes the bill even more frustrating.

“The premier said he would do no harm during this recovery period,” said Baspaly. “This bill is not congruent with that. This is a distraction that’s needless and does financial harm to the institution and it is a hardship on employers.”

Baspaly and the letter’s other signatories urged the province to set Bill 23 aside as the premier undertakes his consultations to address the fallout from COVID-19 and the province’s economic recovery.

“If this historical accord breaks down, we all lose,” said Baspaly. “We need a system that is fair for both sides and meets the needs for both parties.”

 

Follow the author on Twitter @RussellReports.

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