Workers’ Compensation Board review shows that there is still room for improvement
Alberta workers, their advocates, and labour unions across the province have been pushing for an overhaul of Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) for decades.
One of those advocates, now Premier Rachel Notley, then just an opposition MLA for Edmonton Strathcona, told an injured workers rally back in February of 2012:
“Alberta’s workers are the backbone of this province; the backbone of this community.” she said. “We need for them to be treated with justice and with respect. That is not happening now through the Workers’ Compensation Board system in Alberta, and that must change.”
Some of the main critiques made repeatedly by people like Notley and groups like the Canadian Injured Workers Association of Alberta (CIWAA) included the practice of relying on the opinions of medical professionals and administrators paid by WCB, rather than a worker’s own physician, the miserly payouts to injured workers, the inability to appeal the decisions of medical review panels, the existence of an incentive program seemingly rewarding caseworkers for denying claims, and the practice of “deeming” a job that an injured worker could do at a certain pay level, whether or not that job actually exists.
In March 2016, Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray announced a comprehensive review of the entire WCB system. The three-member panel, composed of a ‘neutral chair,’ a labour-side lawyer, and an employer-side lawyer, was to review everything from transparency and decision-making to governance, effectiveness, and principles of compensation.
The review panel submitted its final report to the minister back in June 2017, and the government subsequently released it publicly and invited further feedback and comment from Albertans. Gray will now take all that feedback and the review panel’s recommendations into consideration and likely present legislation sometime in the next year.
The 186-page report essentially confirmed all of the long-standing critiques of the system, and that implementing the 60 detailed recommendations made by the panel would go a long way to turning the WCB into the system that workers have been asking for.
Chief among the panel’s findings and recommendations was the assertion that the WCB system has lost its way from its original mandate.
“Rather than decision-making that focuses on assisting people with their injuries, illnesses or concerns, the system’s decision-making currently focuses on efficient management of claims. Too often, it seems, the latter is given attention at the expense of the former.”
To fix this, says the panel, the WCB system must put the health and well-being of injured workers at the heart of everything it does, and that all policies, protocols, and decisions must be made with this focus in mind.
That recommendation alone would result in significant improvements to the plight of injured workers, but the report also goes on to make other significant and positive recommendations including:
– The creation of a “fair practices” office to play an ombudsman role;
– Allowing workers to select their own medical professionals.
– Make the “deeming” process better reflect the realities of Alberta’s labour market and make a worker’s reemployment prospects the focus of the process.
– Award a $40,000 lump sum when a worker dies on the job; prohibit reward, bonus, and incentive systems for caseworkers and managers.
– Expand the definition of “first responder” to include correctional officers and emergency dispatchers.
– Oblige employers to return an injured worker to work.
Despite the tremendous leap forward that the panel’s recommendations represent, there are still a number of long-standing critiques that the panel did not address. The CIWAA held a rally in front of the Legislature and delivered a petition last week asking the Minister to address those issues in legislation, even though they were not included in the report.
One of the CIWAA’s key concerns is with the need for justice and reparations for the many injured workers currently living in poverty as a result of the problems identified in the panel’s report. At the very least they should be entitled to review and appeal of the decisions to deny them benefits. They also express concerns about the lack of consequences and penalties for employers who actively suppress claims by their workers, the lack of an appeal mechanism for decisions made by medical panels, and how the WCB treats aging as a “pre-existing condition.” There is also a serious issue with how little a worker is currently compensated for permanent disabilities like blindness, hearing loss, or amputation, which demonstrate the ridiculously low value placed on the lives of workers.
The review panel’s recommendations provide the Alberta government with a significant opportunity to greatly improve the fate of injured workers in Alberta. Fully implementing the 60 recommendations would get the system most of the way there. Addressing the remaining concerns articulated by the CIWAA would get it the rest of the way there. Given the premier’s own long-standing advocacy for those changes, it would be a shame to see them fall even just a little bit short.