B.C. Workers’ Compensation Board report receives praise and heavy criticism

Journal of Commerce | Grant Cameron |September 9, 2020

A long-awaited report that assesses work being done by the B.C. Workers’ Compensation Board and makes recommendations on how to improve the system is drawing rave reviews from the building trades, but construction employers maintain the suggestions are a recipe for disaster.

“The bottom line is that if this report is actioned into policy, that institution is going to be bankrupt,” says Dave Baspaly, president of the Council of Construction Associations. “It’s a fact. We have evidence from other jurisdictions that opening the door to some of this stuff will inevitably just break the bank and that, inevitably, won’t be good for workers or the employers.”

The 517-page report was released recently by Labour Minister Harry Bains. It was done by retired labour lawyer Janet Patterson and contains more than 100 recommendations on how to improve communications, care and individual services at the board, known as WorkSafeBC.

Patterson held public hearings and received almost 2,000 submissions. Two hundred presentations were made, mostly from injured workers and their families on their experiences with the system.

The report, called New Directions: Report of the Workers’ Compensation Board Review, 2019, calls for improved and respectful communications in plain language, a shift to a worker-centric delivery system that treats all workers with dignity, and suggests changing the culture to be fair and accessible.

Baspaly’s take, however, is that the methodology of the report is deeply flawed and focused solely on the concerns of the four per cent of disgruntled workers whose claims were not accepted and not the majority of employees who had successful, well-managed, paid-out claims.

The business community and employers also were not involved in the review as they felt it was not being done fairly, he says. Last year, 46 employer groups ceased participation, stating they had lost confidence in the process due to the short time period of the review, the expanding scope of the review, and the potential bias of Patterson.

“We said halfway through the process, ‘This is a sham. This is basically a case of where you have the conclusions already. Now you’re just trying to find a premise for justifying,’” claims Baspaly.

He warns of severe financial implications if the recommendations are approved because the compensation system will end up shouldering what the health and social services system should be picking up.

“When you start leaning into that and leaning on employers and industry resources, you quickly deplete that which leads to economic consequences and the institution becomes not viable, rates go up, uncertainty goes up. And now you have a pandemic compounding all that.”

However, Andrew Mercier, executive director for the B.C. Building Trades, says the recommendations will ensure injured workers are heard and respected. He particularly likes that the report recommends the system be changed to a more patient-centred medical care model as construction workers have long been calling for fairness and improved access at the board.

“We’ve reviewed the report and we’re very happy with these recommendations. The recommendations in this report would bring WorkSafeBC into the 21st century if they are implemented,” he says.

“On the whole, the effect of the recommendations will make the process less legalistic and more worker-centred. It certainly puts injured workers more at the forefront.”

Instead of strictly adhering to policy, he notes, the proposed changes would allow individual circumstances of a worker, not legal technicalities, to be a determining factor in deciding on compensation.

“That stops people from slipping through the cracks. That is a major shift,” he states.

The review heard that workers whose injuries or recovery fell outside the “cookie cutter” guidelines tended to have very negative compensation experiences and outcomes. This was particularly the experience of workers with serious or complex injuries, concussions, psychological injuries or occupational diseases. Workers repeatedly told the review they did not feel heard through an often adversarial compensation experience.

Mercier says improving communications by issuing decisions of the board in plain English to workers would also be helpful.

“You need to know why a decision is being made and if it’s rejected, why. You shouldn’t need lawyers to explain the board decisions to you.”

Mercier says WorkSafeBC has evolved into a complicated system and he’s also pleased at a suggestion to allow the board to apply the Human Rights Code when making a decision about return-to-work.

“We are severely behind the times by not giving the board the power to make considerations of necessary human rights accommodations when you get to issues like return-to-work, so that is a significant change,” he adds.

However, Baspaly maintains employers already have too much on their plates with COVID-19, Bill 23 which was passed in August, and a number of other reports that affect the industry.

“The employer community is pretty deeply upset. We’re in a situation where we’re still far from over fighting a pandemic and we’re trying to get our economy back on its feet. These reports keep landing and they’re not only a huge distraction, they’re just immensely flawed in their construction.”