Review panel asks for sweeping changes to Alberta’s WCB

Journal of Commerce | ASSOCIATIONS | by RUSSELL HIXSON | 

Sweeping recommendations to transform Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) has the Alberta Construction Association (ACA) deeply concerned.

The association has been poring over the 189-page report and its 60 recommendations since it was delivered to the provincial government this summer by an independent review panel.

The WCB system provides no-fault benefits and supports a safe return to work for injured workers, the province explains. The last comprehensive review of the WCB system was conducted more than 15 years ago.

“It really went further than the mandate,” said Paul Heyens, ACA chair. “Some of these changes are moving towards a social support scheme and that’s a bit of a concern.”

He argued the changes are not as evidence-based, include arbitrary decision-making processes and erode trust. He said taken as a whole, implementation of the recommendations of the WCB Review Panel would significantly reduce employer trust that the WCB provides fair compensation in a financially sustainable way. Heyens also argued the changes would take away incentives to invest in safety programs.

The ACA has gone through the report highlighting changes they are concerned with. For example, recommendation 40 would amend the act to establish a requirement that an injured worker continues to be covered under their existing health benefits program. The ACA argues this recommendation is statutory overreach. According to their letter to provincial officials, “the Government should not have the power to effectively rewrite the terms of agreement between employers and their benefits providers.”

The association argues this potentially large cost has not been considered in the costing of recommendations.

Recommendation 49 was another example of many the ACA had issues with. It would have the Appeals Commission encourage the use of an alternate dispute resolution mechanism as an option in the appeals process, making use of case conferencing and other approaches that help achieve early and effective resolution of matters under appeal.

The ACA disagrees, stating that the entire review and appeals process needs to be governed by evidence consistently applied to clearly written policy.

“Stakeholders can only be confident if the Appeals Commission continues to act as a quasi-judicial process,” wrote the ACA in their letter to government.

The WCB review was launched in March 2016 as part of the Alberta’s formal review of agencies, boards and commissions. It also included the Appeals Commission for Alberta Workers’ Compensation and the Medical Panel Office.

The WCB system covers nearly 1.9 million Albertans working at over 160,000 employers across the province. According to the ACA, Alberta’s construction industry contributes approximately 25 per cent of annual WCB premiums.

Heyens cited the WCB’s annual reports which show more than 80 per cent satisfaction with the fairness of WCB decisions in 2011 and 2012. As well, more than 93 per cent of injured workers achieved the fitness to return to work.

“Ideologically, the mandate is to make sure workers are protected and I think that’s an admirable thing,” Heyens said. “I want them protected. But I don’t know that the system was mistreating anyone. The comprehensive sweeping changes were a bit alarming to us. I would suggest our members take a step back and advise their representatives that this is too much too soon.”

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), however, welcomed the review.

“Right now, we have an OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) Act that doesn’t respect the fundamentals of worker safety in Alberta,” said Gil McGowan, president of the AFL. “The act is full of token language that sounds good on the surface but doesn’t amount to any meaningful, enforceable protections for workers, especially compared to other provinces.”

He stated that at its basic conception, Alberta’s OHS Act leaves Alberta workers more vulnerable than workers in other provinces, with elementary safety provisions framed as suggestions rather than enforceable rules. He also believes the act needs modernizing to keep up with current technology trends.

“As our understanding of technology and hazards changes, we need a fast, effective way to change our laws,” said McGowan. “Workers deserve the benefit of the latest research to protect their health and safety, particularly in dangerous fields. No worker should have to work in unsafe, unprotected conditions for decades simply because we lack legal mechanisms to address a known problem.”

The review panel was chaired by human resources and labour relations consultant Mia Norrie alongside members John Carpenter, a partner with Chivers Carpenter law firm, and labour relations consultant Pemme Cunliffe. During the course of the review, the panel received approximately 1,700 questionnaire responses and more than 500 written submissions.

“We are confident that these recommended changes will protect the future stability of the WCB, while ensuring that the needs of injured workers are addressed in a fair and transparent manner,” said Norrie. “We are extremely grateful to those individuals and organizations that gave their perspectives and we trust that all participants will see their input reflected in the final recommendations.”