N.L. overhauls workers’ compensation system

Recommendations a good start, but more action needed: NLFL

Changes to Newfoundland and Labrador’s workers’ compensation system are nearing the final stages — but the province’s labour federation isn’t lining up behind all the tweaks.

Every five years, the provincial government establishes a statutory review committee to look at the workers’ compensation system. Its goal is to make the claims process more efficient. It also includes a legal review of the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act.

In February, Service NL released the report from the review committee. In it, there were 42 policy recommendations and an additional 90 recommendations. The government has opened the floor up for public input before implementing the suggestions.

"These recommendations affect workers and employers, so it is important that we provide members of the public with an opportunity to respond to these recommendations," said Dan Crummell, minister of Service NL and minister responsible for the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission (WHSCC).

On the docket for the review committee were maximum compensable assessable earnings, financial sustainability, labour market re-entry, medical management, occupational disease and prevention and the role of stakeholders.

The consultation process also focused its lens on other issues affecting the workers’ compensation system, such as the early and safe return to work, the importance of efficient internal and external review processes and the value of effective, transparent governance.

As part of its recommendations, Service NL’s review committee named the implementation of additional training certification standards as one means to improve training and workplace health and safety. It also called for more collaboration between the WHSCC and the provincial Occupational Health and Safety branch to improve prevention practices.

Under claims management, the committee suggested increasing education and awareness of the use of disability management guidelines and initiatives to prevent occupational disease in the workplace.

As for an early and safe return to work, increasing the awareness and education of return-to-work programs, with the objective of increasing planning and collaboration between employers and workers in the program, would help ease the transition, it said. Similarly, labour market re-entry programs should provide information about regionally relevant occupational classifications to workers and improve key indicators for those labour market programs.

By enhancing the approach and taking a balanced, long-term and planned approach to reducing assessment rates and increasing workers’ benefits, a path towards financial sustainability would be paved, according to the review committee.

Finally, enhancing the statutory review process would improve overall governance of Newfoundland and Labrador’s workers’ compensation system.

Labour wish list

While the changes are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done to enhance the health and safety of workers in the province, as well as streamline the claims process, said Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL).

"We don’t support the whole thing. We have some areas of concern," she said. "It’s not the cost that becomes the driver, it’s making sure the employee gets back to work."

The NLFL has its own list of recommendations, some of which aren’t addressed in the report. For instance, Shortall pushed for an elimination of the cap of maximum compensable assessable earnings. However, the committee used the consumer price index (CPI) and instead raised the limit to slightly more than $5,000.

As well, the labour federation called for increases to the income replacement rate. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the current rate is 80 per cent of earnings, but in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island the rate is 85 per cent. In Nova Scotia, income is replaced at 75 per cent for the first 26 weeks, and 85 per cent for time after that. Shortall said N.L. should up its rate to 90 per cent, or at the very least keep consistent with other Atlantic provinces.

Occupational disease is another area Shortall would like to see enhanced. This latest review included a clause specifically for firefighters. Should the recommendations get the green light, firefighters whose claims are denied by the board would be able to appeal at the municipal level, and take their case to their individual town employers.

But while that is a step in the right direction, more movement is needed to address health and safety, Shortall said. For example, the clause would not cover firefighters battling a blaze at a shipyard.

"It’s a movement forward but it doesn’t really address what we asked for in our submission," she said.

But Crummell maintains Newfoundland and Labrador’s compensation system purrs like a well-oiled machine, and these latest recommendations are a way to keep up its success and tweak the process.

"Today, the workers’ compensation system in this province is fundamentally stronger than at any point in the last decade with general satisfaction with the system steadily increasing and 97 per cent of all claims submitted to the WHSCC — with the proper information — being accepted," he said. "We want the system to continue in this direction and we believe that by working together with our stakeholders and the public, we can continue to develop a system that is safe, accountable and sustainable."

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