While employer associations have stated they have concerns over the timing and vague scope of the current review of B.C.’s workers compensation system, labour representatives see it as a potential opportunity to reclaim ground lost in the early 2000s.
“When the Liberals made the changes back in 2002, it was devastating for injured workers,” said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. Building Trades.
In 2002 several changes were made to the system through Bill 49 and Bill 63, including a shift in the basis for benefits compensation from 75 per cent of gross income to 90 per cent of net income. Functional pensions were cut off at 65 rather than payable for life. Restrictions were imposed on compensation for verified psychological injuries.
“All of those changes allowed the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) to build a massive surplus,” said Sigurdson. “We opposed it in 2002 when they did it, we opposed it any time we had an opportunity to speak to compensation issues and we appreciate the opportunity to participate in trying to restore those benefits.”
According to Sigurdson the system currently holds $6.5 billion in reserve and almost $3 billion in surplus.
“Workers injured on the job gave up their right to sue their employer in return for fair compensation. Those terms and conditions were changed by the previous Liberal administration. As we said then and we say today: shame on them for failing to protect injured workers.”
According to review documents, the province stated its aim is to shift the system to become more “worker-centred.” It also specifically plans to look at “policies and practices that support injured workers’ return to work” and it would evaluate current policies and practices through “gender- and diversity-based analysis.” Case management of injured workers and “any potential amendments” to the Workers’ Compensation Act will also be assessed.
“I’m not confident until I see the actual recommendations and implementation,” said Sigurdson. “The workers’ compensation system has been skewed against the injured worker when they are at their most vulnerable. The Liberal government and many of the employer associations out there, they didn’t care. Protecting workers interests has always been what we are all about, I hope the review will restore some of the balance that was in place prior to the cuts that the Liberals made.”
The review is being conducted by retired labour lawyer Janet Patterson, whose report is due to government by Sept. 30.
The BC Federation of Labour (BCFED) called the review long overdue and criticized the former Liberal government for changing the system.
“A key legacy of the BC Liberal changes is eroded pensions and reduced benefits. Moreover, injured workers must navigate a complex and onerous system that lacks meaningful supports for them to return to work or be retrained,” said the federation in a statement to the Journal of Commerce. “This must change. Put simply, B.C. needs a compensation system that treats injured workers and their families with dignity and ensures they are fully compensated for their loss.”
In its submission to Patterson, the federation outlines how the system’s resources could be re-invested to restore or increase supports, benefits and pensions for injured workers.
The BCFED’s submission also outlines the need to modernize WCB culture to better reflect a worker-centric service delivery model.
“For example, B.C. is the only jurisdiction in Canada, besides Saskatchewan, with a single worker representative on its Board,” stated the federation. “We call for a balanced Board make-up, one that includes three worker representatives, three employer representatives and three public interest representatives, including an injured worker.”
The federation also advocates for change to the Workers Compensation Act to restore discretion of the Board to consider the merits and justice of each injured worker’s claim and to add re-employment obligations to ensure the WCB can enforce return to work and hold employers accountable.
“Finally, our submission recommends a more robust integration of the compensation system and prevention services, improvements to the claims management system, and the creation of a worker health and safety centre whose mandate is to offer a community-based approach to medical evaluation and treatment for injured workers,” said the federation.
Patterson has been critical of the system in the past and was part of a team of labour attorneys who prepared a 2009 report for the BCFED titled “Insult to Injury: Changes to the BC Workers’ Compensation System (2002- 2008): The Impact on Injured Workers”.
In the report, Patterson and the other two authors wrote that the 2002 changes “were initiated by the Liberal government after an aggressive lobbying effort by employers. The employer lobby advanced the inaccurate view that the system had become economically unsustainable and the resulting changes were based upon no discernable principle other than that of reducing costs for employers. In that regard, the changes were very successful. But these changes have come at a profound cost to workers and to the treatment and benefits that injured workers receive under the compensation system.”
The authors explained that the most extreme consequences of the changes to the system are the effective elimination of loss of earnings pensions and the virtual elimination of vocational rehabilitation services.
“This has had a profoundly negative economic impact on thousands of permanently injured workers and their families,” read the report.