Unlike the provincial government, Manitoba's labour groups believe there is very little to crow about the fact workplace injury claims have fallen noticeably in the last decade. Workers are still being hurt on the job, they say, but numbers are down because they are coerced not to file a claim with the Workers Compensation Board and thus keep employers' premiums down.
To address this, Labour Minister Jennifer Howard asked an outside expert how to alter Manitoba's worker compensation scheme to better protect workers. British Columbian Paul Petrie found Manitoba's WCB rate-setting is "aggressive" compared to other provinces, particularly when it comes to hiking rates for workplaces with higher claims costs. There's not a lot of prevention being promoted and little economic return for employers to invest in such programs.
Mr. Petrie could not say how big a problem claim suppression might be -- he was not asked to. As with employer groups, he accepts that it happens, but without data or analysis he could not describe its magnitude. He was merely asked to recommend changes to prevent suppression.
Mr. Petrie found fines levied on employers who might deliberately suppress injury claims or fail to report injuries to the WCB are a relative slap on the wrist. They should be raised, he advised.
More controversially, Mr. Petrie advised changes to WCB's rate-assessment system in order to motivate employers to prevent injuries. Other jurisdictions found a system that emphasizes "claims experience" -- significantly hiking rates for employers with high claims costs -- does little to spur prevention. Employers are more likely to focus on cost control after injury occurs by keeping employees on the job in other duties or to discourage the claim reporting.
Mr. Petrie suggested WCB alter its insurance model so industry groups bear the cost for the first two weeks of an injured worker's compensation. Employers are grouped by industries and rates are adjusted based on the group's relative risk. The idea is, if short-term costs are shared, a specific employer has breathing space to invest in prevention, which should benefit the group as a whole.
Some Manitoba employers are bristling at the suggestion. The Manitoba Federation of Labour, meanwhile, is unhappy Mr. Petrie did not advise scrapping entirely the claims-experience element of the rating system, using a simple flat-rate model instead.
Mr. Petrie says he avoided dramatic changes specifically because he was working with a dearth of data on claims suppression.
The unfortunate fact is Ms. Howard launched the review without sufficient information to describe the issue. That essentially put Mr. Petrie in a position of finding solutions for an ill-defined problem. The result is a report that satisfies almost no one, with important recommendations that are speculative. Manitoba intends to launch a survey on claims suppression with Ontario this year.
It seems apparent pittance fines should be raised and workers ought to be made aware of their rights concerning unsafe work and when injuries occur. But Ms. Howard should wait for the results of the research on claims suppression before deciding whether the WCB rate-setting scheme needs altering.