WCB employees say system needs reform

Balance has tipped, say unions

The people staffing workers’ compensation boards (WCB) across Canada have launched a campaign calling for reform of the public disability insurance system to “reaffirm the historic compromise” that saw workers give up the right to sue employers over workplace injuries in exchange for guaranteed no-fault benefits.

In the past five years there has been a trend towards reduced benefits, stricter rules for claims coverage and more services being contracted out to private providers, said Sharon Power, president of the Newfoundland Association of Public and Private Employees local representing workers’ compensation employees in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“We’re here to provide a service to injured workers,” said Power. “And who better knows what the problems are with the system and the best way to fix them than the people who work within the system?”

At an October conference held in Barrie, Ont., the unions representing about 10,000 WCB employees issued a set of 27 principles they want to see adopted as minimum standards in all workers’ compensation boards.

“The balance is being tipped against compensation for injured workers. The process we’re going down is threatening the principles of fair compensation,” said Power.

The unions’ concerns varied across the country. In British Columbia, Sandra Wright, president of the Compensation Employees’ Union, is concerned about legislative changes in 2002 that have resulted in a steady reduction of loss-of-earning benefits. Whereas 927 people in B.C. received this benefit in 2002 to make up for the difference between what they earned before and after their injuries, only 27 workers received it in the first nine months of this year, said Wright.

In Ontario, the workers’ compensation regime got out of vocational rehabilitation services in 1998, making return-to-work entirely the responsibility of employers and workers. The result was a rise in the average cost of lost-time injury, said Harry Goslin, president of local 1750 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. The duration for complex cases rose from 14 weeks to 18 weeks.

In many jurisdictions across the country, workers’ compensation boards have been introducing automatic claims administration, limiting the types of claims that would be covered, said Power.

“It has the potential for narrowing entitlements for injured workers. It standardizes the benefits (they) receive,” said Power. “For the people who work in the system, automatic claims administration eliminates the discretion they have as they consider individual circumstances. It’s a set of rules and you hit all the rules or you don’t get it. It’s a black-and-white approach and nothing is black and white about workers’ compensation.”

At the Institute for Work and Health, a Toronto-based research organization, scientist Emile Tompa said it’s difficult to quantitatively pin down changes in attitude across workers’ compensation boards in Canada.

Time-lost claims have been on a steady downward slope, he said, but that’s true in many developed countries.

“It’s (more) than any specific programmatic change or any behavioural change in a jurisdiction,” he said. Factors that may be behind this trend include a shift away from manufacturing and physically demanding work and a rise in the use of robotics and technology.

He said there has also been a change in the philosophical approach to disability. At workers’ compensation boards, this means more of a focus on returning people to work and minimizing the impact of the injury on a person’s functional ability.

Accompanying this mindset has been a shift in how wage replacement income is calculated. In the past, payments were based on the percentage of total impairment, sometimes called the “meat chart” system. So whether someone loses a finger or an arm, that injured body part would form part of the equation in how much compensation was paid out.

“Nowadays, the concept of disability is not about the person, but the person in context. A person may have an impairment but not necessarily a disability because disability is a social phenomenon to some degree. Someone could lose a finger and have an impairment but not be disabled because they’re able to continue to do all the stuff they used to do in their lives,” said Tompa.

Most WCB systems in Canada now make that distinction between impairment and disability.

“For example, the compensation system in Ontario now pays wage replacement based on work disability and not on total bodily impairment,” said Tompa. “What’s your work ability? That depends on your functional ability, the skills you have, the work you were doing, the types of jobs out there.”

But Steve Mantis, secretary of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Group, said there’s a lot wrong with that approach. Setting compensation rates based on what job an adjudicator deems an injured worker is capable of doing penalizes workers who can’t find a job but have been deemed to earn a minimum wage, he said.

Mantis, who also added his voice to the call for a reform of the system, wanted a return to the “meat chart” system, which has the advantage of sparing injured workers the humiliation of being repeatedly grilled about what they can and can’t do.

“(The meat chart system) is the most secure system and the most rational,” he said, adding the next best option is to compensate people for actual wage loss and not projected wage loss, as is the practice in Saskatchewan.

Mantis, who lost his arm while doing construction work in 1978, said the impact of his injury has worsened over the years. He called for benefits to be indexed to the cost of living.

“The historic compromise that led to the creation of the compensation system has been undermined on a number of fronts. We’re seeing workers and family members falling further and further into poverty as a result.”

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