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Report calling for changes to Workers Compensation in Alberta a step toward ending 'culture of denial'

Alberta Labour Minister Christina Gray

Perhaps the two most symbolically important and potentially beneficial changes to Alberta's Workers Compensation system contained in the recommendations of a three-member independent review panel that were released by the province on Thursday were:

  1. The prohibition on the use of so-called performance pay, pay-at-risk, bonuses or other programs that tie compensation of WCB employees -- especially senior executives -- to corporate-style performance measures.
  2. Ending the practice of distributing "surplus" funds each year to employers, instead of using them for what they were intended -- helping working people who are injured or made sick by their work.

While it is not clear what percentage of the WCB's top management's obviously excessive salaries are made up of bonuses and other perks, this approach to executive pay is unquestionably a pernicious practice of the sort that bedevils Workers Compensation boards in Alberta and throughout Canada.

The kind of thinking behind such policies, as well as the stratospheric salaries paid to senior executives, encourages practices that undermine the no-fault principles at the base of the entire Canadian Workers Compensation system and in turn lead to many grave injustices to sick and injured workers.

In 2015, publication of the government's "sunshine list" of public sector salaries revealed, Alberta WCB President and CEO Guy Kerr was paid close to $900,000 in salary and benefits. In the same year, the Board's five vice-presidents were paid salaries ranging from $468,000 to $600,000.

Conservative governments consistently argue that overpaying and over-bonusing corporate executives hired to run these public service boards enables the hiring of the best people for the jobs. Could be. I'm certainly not going to say the WCB isn't run by capable executives. But I'll guarantee you one result is consistently that these top executives emphasize the practices the three panel members damned in the report released July 6.

Hitherto, when there have been disagreements between the WCB and the people it exists to serve, the report said, management has leaned toward managing claims "in aggressive accordance with strict rules, even when the resulting decisions fly in the face of common sense. This raises frustration among workers and employers alike and it contributes to a perception that the WCB has a 'culture of denial.'" So true.

The report continued: "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."

The second pernicious practice mentioned above, distributing "surplus" money to employers instead of spending where it is supposed to be spent, on ill and injured workers, is a byproduct of this common approach to reward "efficient" claims management. This too has contributed to the subversion of Workers Compensation's no-fault principles, and without doubt in many workplaces results in workers being actively discouraged from reporting injuries to pad the corporate bottom line.

Obviously, not all employers behave this way. Some companies and individuals will do the right thing regardless. But when you provide a cash incentive to anti-social behaviour, what else do you expect to happen?

High-paid executives, beneficiaries of the old system, will hate this proposal. If the government of Premier Rachel Notley implements the recommendations as it should, some of them will leave. This, I would suggest, will not be much of a loss. Other executives who will do good work for less, and with a sense of public service, can be found. Kerr's salary, remember, was double the amount paid the same year to his counterpart in Ontario -- a job that didn’t go unfilled.

Corporations that get the annual surplus caused by their lack of claims -- for whatever reason -- will hate it too, and will curse the NDP. So what else is new?

This is why, presumably, the first and loudest screams yesterday from the Opposition Wildrose Party and their Astro-Turf allies were about the recommendation to end the misuse of "surplus" cash.

Of course, their protests yesterday didn't mention that Alberta's WCB premiums remain the lowest in Canada and contribute to the underfunding that is at the root of many of the Board's problems and recent wrong turns.

WCB Chair Jim Kindrake issued a diplomatically uninformative statement, thanking the panel for its insights, restating the Board's independence, and promising to review the panel's recommendations and work with the government. In other words, nothing to see here, folks, please move along …

In all, the panel -- made up of labour relations consultant Mia Norrie as neutral chair, labour lawyer John Carpenter, a partner with Chivers Carpenter, representing workers, and Covenant Health in-house labour relations consultant Pemme Cunliffe representing employers -- made 60 recommendations.

The panel received approximately 1,700 questionnaire responses and more than 500 written submissions, the government's news release said.

The report argued the philosophy of Workers Compensation should put "the health and well-being of injured workers at the centre of the … system."

This "should be the shared goal that all partners have in mind when they approach the system and towards which all the partners should work."

Of course, any government's panel would likely say the same thing. What makes this one different -- as illustrated by the recommendations -- is that it appears to mean it.

Fourteen recommendations deal with shifting the culture of the WCB toward a "worker-centred" orientation. Another seven deal with taking a better approach to health, including enabling workers to use their own physicians, and establishing a fair medical dispute resolution mechanism.

Nineteen recommendations deal with the return-to-work process for sick and injured workers. These include: Amending the Workers Compensation Act to obligate employers to help employees return to work, enabling the appeals commission to take note that certain types of employment are associated with certain illnesses, and requiring employers to continue covering injured workers under their existing health benefits programs.

Other recommendations in this section include amending the term "first responder" to enable presumptive coverage of PTSD to be extended to additional occupations. Unfortunately, the panel did not recommend expanding Alberta's legislated presumptions beyond those currently in place. So the situation will prevail a while yet in which male dominated, uniformed professions benefit from the presumption, while female-dominated professions like nursing, whose practitioners are just as likely to suffer PTSD, do not. Sad.

Seventeen recommendations deal with making the system more sustainable, including streamlining the appeals approach, publishing decisions of the WCB Appeals Commission online, and, as noted, ending the practice of misusing "surplus" funds to reward employers for whatever.

Three recommendations call for changes to support prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses. These include requiring safety associations funded through WCB funds to satisfy oversight requirements, and amending the Act to give the WCB authority to collect information relevant to the prevention of workplace injury and disease and disclose it to the Labour Department’s Occupational Health and Safety division.

Panel members deserve Albertans' thanks for their work, as does Labour Minister Christina Gray, who appointed the three to the independent review.

But Gray also needs to get on with implementing the recommendations, and all she has really committed to at this point is to review them "over the coming months before making any legislative changes." This is not as reassuring as it might be.

If yesterday's report indeed becomes the basis of legislated policy, it will be interesting to see if Progressive Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney will include these small changes in his Trump-like vow to eliminate every single piece of NDP Legislation in a single session of the Legislature. After all, they would make life vastly better for ordinary working people, somewhat less luxurious for big-shot executives, and only insignificantly more expensive for a few irresponsible corporate employers. So I guess we know the answer to that one.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga

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