Our workers compensation system needs changes.
When the system was set up, workers gave up the right to sue their employers for unsafe working conditions that lead to injury and death in the workplace. In exchange, a system was set up to ensure fair compensation to workers and their families when people are injured or killed at work.
Last year, 30,000 workers reported workplace accidents and 34 lost their life. These statistics represent Manitobans who rely on a fair compensation system to ensure they and their families can make ends meet while dealing with injuries and loss.
Before 2001, the premiums paid by employers were based more on the idea of collective liability according to industry. In 2001, a new model was made that linked a company's experience directly to its rates. The fewer accidents reported, the less a company had to pay. Sounds fair, right? Unfortunately, there are some unintended consequences with the current rate model.
The goal was that employers would invest in safety measures that would lower the number of accidents in their workplace, and many employers have taken that approach. What some employers figured out, however, is they could effectively lower their rates by suppressing the number of claims reported, without investing in the safety measures that would prevent the accidents from occurring.
While it is illegal to suppress a claim, no employer has ever been found guilty or fined for claim suppression in Manitoba. If they had been, the fine was set at $450, hardly a deterrent.
Further, the sooner a worker returns to work, the more an employer saves in WCB costs. While no one would disagree with a goal of getting workers back to work sooner, having them come in to count ceiling tiles or tell people to wipe their feet and sit by a door all day is not meaningful work and does not support a worker healing and being able to perform their duties, yet it happens today because it saves an employer premium costs.
The Workers Compensation Board has recently had two independent reviews explore the notion of claim suppression. Both reviews have identified that the current rate model rewards illegal claim suppression by employers. Using conservative assumptions, they also estimate between six and 36 per cent of claims are suppressed. That's between 1,000 and 6,000 cases a year in Manitoba.
When claims are suppressed, we don't get an accurate picture of how many accidents are occurring, we off-load medical expenses from an employer responsibility to our publicly funded health-care system and we support a system that does nothing to make workplaces safer. It's also not fair to the employers who are following the law and investing in prevention to make their workplaces safer if some employers find ways to game the system to keep their premiums down.
I applaud the WCB board and government of the day for recognizing that we need a system that is fair for everyone. We need a WCB system that doesn't reward illegal behaviour by employers. We need a system that rewards investments in prevention. We need a system that ensures workers can access the benefits they are entitled to when they need them. While we would like to see the progress of change move faster towards a fairer system, we are proud to be working together with other worker and employer representatives to make sure we build a WCB system that is fair for everyone.
Kevin Rebeck is president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour.