St. John’s firefighters suspected of WCB abuse

Mayor blames benefit top-ups as claims rise
By Uyen Vu
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/19/2006

There’s no doubt workers’ compensation claims among firefighters at the City of St. John’s are up drastically. The question is why.

Some city officials, including Mayor Andy Wells, have wondered out loud whether the cause might be a private insurance plan that tops up workers’ compensation benefits. “There’s not much of an incentive to return to work,” said Wells.

Kevin Breen, the city’s director of HR, said the average duration of workers’ compensation claims has been “up dramatically” this year. So far, out of a workforce of about 200, there have been seven claims, averaging 360 hours per claim.

That’s a marked increase from 2005, when there were three claims averaging 190 hours a claim, or 2004, when there were four claims averaging 19 hours a claim. In 2003, there were seven claims, averaging 101 hours a claim.

Although there were the same number of claims in 2003 as in 2006, said Breen “the duration of the claims are much higher. And that’s more than we’ve ever experienced in at least the last five years.”

Breen stopped short of pinpointing the private insurance plan as a reason behind the rise, calling it only “potentially problematic.” He suggested another factor might be the long wait time for treatment, which is a problem the province’s workers’ compensation board would have to help the city address.

“I know in some cases you can wait months and months just to get an appointment, or just to get a surgery scheduled or a particular procedure scheduled.

He added that he hasn’t yet approached the union on the question of the private insurance plan. Instead, “we want to concentrate on getting the duration down and we want them to co-operate with us.”

However, Chuck Nurse, president of local 1075 of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents the City of St. John’s firefighters, said he’s not concerned by the numbers.

“We’re saying there’s no significance in number as it relates to the firefighters being off on sick leave or workers’ compensation,” said Nurse.

He declined to give any detail about the private insurance plan, adding only that it was a plan that some members have purchased individually and not through the union. Firefighters receive about 80 per cent of their earnings in workers’ compensation benefits when they’re injured on the job, he said. The plan tops that up to a full salary.

At the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission of Newfoundland and Labrador, director of communication Lana Collins said she can’t comment on usage at any specific organization.

Although she’s not aware of any concern over wait times for treatment at the commission, she said long wait times are a fact of life.

“This is Newfoundland and Labrador. Wait times for orthopedic surgeons are extremely long anyway. Our injured workers go through the system just like anybody else. I have no doubt that there are probably injured workers out there” who are waiting three or four months to see a plastic surgeon or an orthopedic surgeon, she said.

Unlike some other workers’ compensation board, the commission does not have the ability to purchase private health-care service to fast-track injured workers, said Collins.

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