Workers’ comp changes leave industry in ‘no man’s land’: Baspaly

Journal of Commerce | Evan Saunders | November 14, 2022

Dr. David Baspaly, CEO of the Council of Construction Associations in B.C., says the industry was not consulted on changes to workers’ compensation put forth by the province.

“We’re pretty angry that the construction sector as a whole didn’t get an opportunity to consult, didn’t get an opportunity to talk this through,” Baspaly said during an interview with the Journal of Commerce.

“In our sector, (cost) certainty is of paramount importance. We need to know before we start taking jobs what that cost certainty is going to be.

“What Bill 41 effectively does is throws everything up in the air. Because we know there is going to be cost escalation across the board with some of the big-ticket items in there.

“We’re left in no man’s land wondering what the future holds because of all these changes.”

Bill 41 makes several notable changes to how workers’ compensation works in B.C., such as allowing it to keep up with inflation, introducing new tools for employees to appeal decisions and bestowing right- to-work policies for injured workers.

Minister of Labour Harry Bains rejected the idea the bill had been crafted in a vacuum.

“We had, and we continue to have, very valuable discussion with employer’s groups as we work towards making sure that the system is as robust as possible,” said Bains.

“This bill is the result of many recommendations that came from several expert reports that were either conducted by WSBC or through us.”

Among the institutions consulted were the Small Business Roundtable, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, the Employers’ Forum, the Mining Association of B.C. and others.

Bains said the bill is a way to undo some cuts to legislation made in the early 2000s which put workers at a disadvantage, such as putting a cap on how much compensation could change in relation to inflation.

He said a surplus in the accident fund has enabled a better financial situation for employers.

Bains said WorkSafeBC (WSBC) always operates with 130 per cent funding available, as a buffer against any unforeseen financial troubles and global economic shifts. It has been operating well above the 130 per cent buffer for many years, he added.

“That’s why the WSBC board was able to use a surplus to subsidize employer’s premiums for over a decade now,” said Bains.

“The workers are saying, ‘It’s long overdue that we also benefit from the surplus in the accident fund.’”

Regarding the effect of costs on employers, Bains said the premium for employers has not shifted in several years due to the surplus and for many employers there will be no change next year.

“This year, for example, the WSBC set the rates. Sixty-three per cent of the employers will see a reduction or no change to their premiums.”

But Baspaly wasn’t only concerned with the financial impact of the changes on the construction sector. He said he was worried about the financial stability of WSBC having to implement the many changes within Bill 41.

“We know that the reserve that WorkSafe has was one of the healthiest in Canada. It was originally designed to smooth rates and keep them reasonable, which is as a driver for small business,” said Baspaly.

“We’re now sitting in a situation where we’re a little bit shaky.”

But Bains wanted to assure one of the government’s priorities is ensuring WorkSafeBC remains financially stable.

“They are in sound financial position right now and I believe that they will continue to (be).”

Regardless, Baspaly said not knowing exactly how costs will be affected over the next several years could negatively impact the construction industry and employer’s ability to bid for projects and create new economic opportunities.

“We want to make sure everybody goes home safe, but we also need to make sure that everybody has a job to feed your family,” Baspaly said.

He expressed concern over the extra layers of oversight being introduced.

Bains said new oversight measures are meant to ensure employer and employee trust in the system.

“We are bringing in an independent insurance commissioner who will be reporting to the WorkSafe board and will have the authority to investigate individual complaints and systemic unfairness brought to their attention,” said Bains.

Aspects of the bill will address concerns workers have around claim suppression and the frustrations they may encounter when dealing with WSBC doctors, he explained. Workers will now have the option to get an independent medical exam if they are unhappy with the diagnosis of a WSBC doctor, he said.

Baspaly said this new system could prove to be problematic.

“In other words, no finality of a claim,” said Baspaly.

“It just circulates as people appeal it to this body and to that body and all over the place. That’s not good for the workers and the people that are impacted by it, nor the employers who want to close those files off.”

Bains said it is the government’s job to make legislative changes to improve labour laws.

“(The) WorkSafe board has the authority to lower the employer’s premiums knowing what their financial situation is. But they cannot change worker’s benefits. There has to be legislative changes,” said Bains.

“We are rebalancing the system. Finally, the workers will have a system that they can rely on at a time when they need it the most.”

At the end of the day, Baspaly says the level of consultation with the construction industry was not adequate as a large stakeholder in the WorkSafeBC fund. He said roughly $240 million in payroll goes towards the organization each year from this sector.

“We want fairness in this system,” Baspaly said.

“But when you don’t consult with us you get what you get, which is a system that’s going to be inherently unstable because it’s not considered both sides of the equation.”

Follow the author on Twitter @JOC_Evan.