New Workplace Safety and Insurance Board regulations have contractors in Hamilton and across the province seething.
Tuesday morning, dozens of local workers picketed at King St. and Bay. St against Bill 119. It requires small businesses and independent proprieters to buy workplace injury insurance from the province at steep premiums.
Previously, contractors were required to be insured, but could shop around with private sector agencies to get the coverage and price that suited them.
The new legislation, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, means they must now purchase WSIB insurance at rates that some say will drive small businesses out of the province.
Justin Dokter, a 24-year-old who runs his own one-man carpentry renovation business, helped organize the demonstration in Hamilton alongside another in Ottawa. He said he's left with few options under the new bill.
"Either I could go to another province and work there where their costs are lower, or I can fold up my business and do something else," he said. "Or I have to deal with the fact that it's the cost of doing business and have to put the bill forward to my customers."
He explained it's not a matter of pinching pennies: the mandatory premiums range from around 1 per cent to more than 18 per cent of a worker's insurable earnings, depending on the job. A self-employed small business person is now forced to pay thousands of dollars for insurance that Dokter said many don't use.
"We're business owners. We work hard every day. We don't take time off," he said. "If we get hurt, we're back on the job tomorrow. We're paying for something we'll never use."
Bill 119 was passed in 2009 but only came into effect for independent contractors on January 1.
Supported by the Liberal and NDP provincial parties,, Conservative MPP Randy Hillier has introduced multiple bills in attempt to amend the rules to be more flexible, but each bill was defeated.
'We have 25,000 of us independent operators in just the construction industry. If we rally together we can get things done.' —Justin Dokter, carpenter
His latest effort was Bill 87, which would allow business owners to buy insurance from private insurers, but it has been caught in limbo since the Ontario legislature was prorogued.
Many suspect the change in policy is an attempt to chip away at the WSIB's unfunded liability debt. Roger Tickner, a registered safety professional, said the provincial government is trying to get small businesses to foot the bill.
"Most of us believe the reason is that the board is over $14 billion in debt. In this province, $14 billion in debt is a lot of money," Tickner said. "I'm not against the idea of people paying for insurance, but this is just wrong-minded. It's been created by people that really don't understand the business as well as they should. It should have been designed better."
Tickner estimated that as many as 100 workers showed up for the 10 a.m. protest. Many cars passing by honked horns in support. But with the bill already in effect, it's not clear what course of action the workers have now.
Still, Dokter was optimistic that their demonstration was the first of many.
"The bill has been passed but nothing's ever too late," Dokter said.
"We hope to rally support from other construction workers so that they will stand up for themselves. We have 25,000 of us independent operators in just the construction industry. If we rally together we can get things done."