The Manitoba Federation of Labour recently renewed its chronic complaint about the Workers Compensation Board, alleging the WCB's approach to setting annual premiums for employers provides an incentive for employers to suppress valid claims of workplace injuries and illnesses.
Instead of trying to relight an old bonfire, the MFL would better assist both workers and employers by promoting the undertaking of a comprehensive review of what is a long outdated program. What all workers need is 24-hour, year-round comprehensive injury and illness coverage, regardless of cause.
The WCB, through a tripartite board of directors (equal members drawn from labour, employers and representatives of the public interest), administers a legislative program. Injured and sick workers, disabled due to workplace accidents or conditions, are compensated and rehabilitated, while their employers, which pay for the costs of the program through annual assessments, cannot be sued by their workers.
The philosophical underpinnings of the program extend back 150 years to Prussia, when Otto von Bismarck implemented the first program as a measure to calm then-revolutionary social unrest. Fast forward a century and a half and workers are more likely to fall ill due to lifestyle choices or fate, or be injured while off the job, than be disabled due to their workplace accident.
This is not to say tragic workplace accidents don't still occur. Today's workers are far more likely to be working in stores, offices and professional settings than blue-collar occupations. They need 24-hour, 365-day coverage for both injuries and illness, regardless of whether disability arises on or off the job. (Claims against the WCB are valid only if they arise in the course of or as the result of employment.)
Truly needed all-causes, all-times comprehensive plans are already in place for all Canadians, through medicare, employment insurance, the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, MPI, and by jointly funded (employee and employer) accident and illness insurance plans. Now, for some well-insured workers, duplicate if not multiple coverage can exist.
If, for example, a Winnipeg firefighter dies and the cause of the death is attributed to the job, then compensation flows to the family from the city's group life insurance plan as well as the Canada Pension Plan and the WCB. Individual life insurance, if in place, also cuts in. And, in any case, for many illnesses it is difficult to determine the primary cause -- and when there is doubt, appropriately, the scales tip to the worker. Currently, there are large differences as to the extent individual workers are compensated when ill or injured -- some workers lack coverages others enjoy.
Returning to the MFL's complaint, both workers and employers have the legislated responsibility to report workplace accidents and illnesses. The filing of a claim allows not only for the worker to be compensated for lost wages, but also sets the stage for the meeting of any out-of-pocket medical costs and the provision of rehabilitative services. Furthermore, the filing of a claim allows for a review of the health and safety conditions and practices in the workplace.
While claim suppression likely does, on occasion, occur, the penalties against the employer are significant enough to promote good behaviour. No employer association promotes claim suppression. On the other hand, the current assessment model promotes workplace health and safety. Lower assessments due to lower claims experience allows employers to be better able to invest in safe workplaces and good working conditions. Pro-active positive measures afforded in part by lower assessments are in the interests of both employers and employees, a win-win situation.
Twenty-five years ago, when no effective assessment plan was in place, the incidence of workplace accidents and claims were much higher.
Much has changed since Bismarck's days. Manufacturing and blue-collar jobs have fallen greatly as a percentage of the economy. White-collar occupations now dominate the workplace. With government, Crown corporation and private group and individual life and disability insurance plans in place, the limited coverage provided by workers compensation programs brings into question the overall economic effectiveness of the program, particularly given duplicate coverage and the often multi-factor causes of illness.
Ahead of a long overdue revamp of society's approach to supporting those that are either injured or sick, there is no good reason to do away with a workers compensation assessment model that promotes workplace health and safety while allowing the safest employers and industries to have lower assessment charges.
Since its return to government in 1999, the NDP has consistently favoured workers and organized labour over employers as to the workers compensation program. With respect to the MFL's continued criticism of the WCB's approach to assessing employers, the government would be wise not to buy into a rollback of what is a win-win WCB assessment model. What is really needed is an independent review of a long-outdated and inefficient program, one where duplication and inefficiency rules.
Graham Lane is the former chairman of the Public Utilities Board. He also served as the CEO of the Workers Compensation Board from 1988 to 1992.