British Columbia

Rigid disability payment pay rules trap skilled workers at home, say business leaders

For workers without employee disability insurance, the financial shock of returning to work after a long-term disability can be a frustrating barrier. Pending increase to annual earnings exemption not enough to fill gap for skilled workers says board of trade

Injured workers need the time and support to return gradually or they end up stuck, say employers

Surrey Board of Trade President and CEO Anita Huberman says the government needs to increase support for willing workers who are ready to return to their jobs without clawing back disability assistance all at once. (CBC News)

In Surrey, B.C., the business community is calling on the provincial government to financially support employees transitioning back into the workforce after long-term disability leave.

Injured workers need the time and support to return gradually, employers say.

A gap in support services often causes workers to push too hard to return full-time before they are ready, leading to re-injury and a skilled worker shortage, according to Surrey Board of Trade (SBOT) leaders.

The problem is that even returning part-time means a full cut off of disability assistance.

"Our manufacturing sector, for example, is suffering a skills shortage," said Anita Huberman, CEO of SBOT.

Exemption increase not enough

As of Oct. 1, the annual earnings exemption — meaning the amount a person can earn before penalty — for a single person on disability assistance in British Columbia will increase from $9,600 to $12,000 a year.

Employers say that is good, but not good enough.

"What is required for these willing workers is a flexible assistance schedule that allows for increasing hours and commensurate pay, [for] that extra time required to successfully integrate back into the workforce," the SBOT said in a statement.

The situation of employees should be determined case by case, and be as flexible and responsive as possible to work, says the board.

The board believes the way the system works now skilled labours are discouraged from returning to work.

High wage earners lose their benefits even if they only return for a few hours.

Often this leaves them earning less than they would if they stayed away from work.

Other workers rush to return full-time work too quickly when they should be taking care of their physical and mental well-being and following the advice of doctors and other professionals, said Huberman.

"If returning too soon, the employee can suffer a medical setback impacting their recovery and the workplace," according the board's announcement which suggests a plan to "wean" workers off payments, starting part-time.

The board of trade said it is looking specifically at programs for individuals who don't have insurance, whose insurance has run out or those who aren't covered by the Workers' Compensation Board or the Insurance Corporation of B.C.

The board's ideas will be discussed by the province in mid-October, says the board.

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition