A bonus program for employees of WorkSafeBC is coming under criticism from a lawyer for injured workers and from a business group whose members pay to keep the non-profit agency operating.

WorkSafeBC pays workers who have been injured on the job, investigates workplace injuries, monitors workplace compliance and promotes employee safety.

Through efficiencies realized by getting injured workers back on the job as quickly as possible, WorkSafeBC realized a savings of $12.8 million in 2011.

Of that, $3.2 million is being distributed to the agency’s unionized employees, meaning each will be receiving a bonus cheque for about $1,400.

"The goal was to benefit the worker by voluntarily returning them to work," said Roberta Ellis, WorkSafeBC’s human resources vice president.

Ellis said workers are not being forced back to work in order to realize a saving to WorkSafeBC, but are going back to their jobs voluntarily.

But Janet Patterson, a lawyer representing some injured workers, disagrees.

"Voluntary is not in any way, shape or form what I would describe," Patterson told CBC News. "Workers go back to work because they are cut off benefits and often irrespective of what their family doctors are saying."

Business group concerned

Patterson said the claim that workers were returning voluntarily is WorksafeBC "spin."

"It’s very frustrating as an advocate for workers going back to work hurt, and the gloss is being put on this "voluntary" return to work."

In a statement issued Thursday on its website, the Compensation Employees' Union said the bonus plan was devised "to achieve savings to pay for any gains in the collective agreeement," because employees would otherwise be limited to no wage increase under the provincial government's net-zero mandate.

"This payment is the result of a lot of very hard work by our members. They are committed to ensuring injured workers return to work and that that return is based on a workable, voluntary and healthy return to work plan," the union statement said. 

The B.C. minister of labour appoints the WorksafeBC board of directors, but the agency is otherwise independent and is funded with premiums paid by employers.

Shachi Kurl, of the Canadian Federal of Independent Business, questions how the millions of dollars in savings are being handled.

"I know a lot of my members are going to be asking, ‘Was there no way for WorkSafe to look at freezing or reducing our premiums if they have all this cash?’"

WorkSafeBC says it is still setting rates for next year and has not yet decided how it would deal with future surpluses.

With files from the CBC's Natalie Clancy