Major changes to Alberta's Workers' Compensation Board coverage take effect April 1

Major changes to the Workers' Compensation Board take effect in Alberta on April 1, including the elimination of an employer’s legal obligation to rehire and accommodate an injured worker.

Critics say changes represent a rollback for injured workers

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping announced major changes to Workers' Compensation Board last fall (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC)

Major changes to the Workers' Compensation Board take effect in Alberta April 1, including the elimination of an employer's legal obligation to rehire and accommodate an injured worker.

Through Bill 47, the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, the UCP government is rolling back changes to the workers' compensation and occupational health and safety rules implemented by the previous NDP government. 

Some of the WCB changes took effect Jan. 1 but many of the major, and most controversial, changes take effect Thursday. 

In addition to scrapping the obligation to reinstate an injured worker after they have been through the WCB process, the changes include:

  • Ending an employer's obligation to continue paying for extended health-care benefits to injured workers on WCB. This means an injured worker would have to buy a private insurance plan to maintain health-care coverage not covered by the WCB. 
  • Closing the Fair Practices Office. This office effectively served as an ombudsperson's office for the WCB that helped both employees and employers navigate the system.
  • Redistributing the surplus from WCB investments to employers in the form of a rebate, instead of remaining within the WCB to improve services.
  • Removing benefit of the doubt provisions that favoured workers where there is approximately equal evidence, such as in a matter before a WCB medical panel.

When Bill 47 was introduced, Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping said it would restore balance to the WCB system and help manage costs by eliminating red tape and duplication of services. 

Joseph Dow, press secretary for Copping, said in an emailed statement Thursday that the services provided by the Fair Practices Offices will transition to other existing organizations.

He said many employers had told the province the legal requirement to reinstate a worker was too inflexible and did not account for the needs of small or seasonal employers.

"Data also shows that employers across the province are voluntarily supporting the return to work of more than 90 per cent of employees," he said.

Dow added that employers still have a duty to accommodate workers with disabilities under human rights legislation and to co-operate in returning an injured employee to work.

Changes address 'undue hardship'

Anthony Butkovic is a WCB consultant who acts for employers. He said the obligation to rehire injured workers imposed an "undue hardship" on small and medium businesses. 

"These legislative changes are a huge positive [for employers] because they're focused on accountability and collaboration between the worker and the employer. 

Butkovic said removing the obligation for an employer to rehire an injured worker ensures the worker will cooperate and take responsibility for attending medical appointments and for participating in a return-to-work plan. 

Critics say the changes are biased against workers, will not ensure workers receive fair treatment from the WCB system and will undermine workers' trust in the system.

"Mr. Copping basically said that the government is doing this because they wanted to bring balance," said Edmonton lawyer John Carpenter, who has represented the labour side for more than 30 years. 

"It is balance for the bosses," he said. "It is not balance for the everyday Albertan, the everyday worker in this province."

Carpenter was particularly critical of the closure of the Fair Practices Office. He said the office provided neutral, arm's length assistance to workers and employers. It also was responsible for monitoring how the adjudicative process was functioning and for making ongoing recommendations to improve it, he said.

Now, workers will have to deal with a fair practices officer who works for the WCB.

"In my respectful view, [the process] will have absolutely no credibility for workers," Carpenter said. 

The government has said it will save $1.8 million by closing the office. But Carpenter said it will cost more in the long run because the office actually saved time for workers, employers, and the WCB.

Purpose of WCB undermined, AFL says

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the changes wrought by Bill 47 will "completely undermine the whole purpose of the Workers' Compensation Board.

"These changes are all about reducing access to benefits, reducing premiums paid by employers," he said.

The changes will make it more difficult for injured workers to navigate the system and more difficult for them to get their applications for benefits and support approved," he said.

McGowan said the removal of the requirement for employers to keep workers on a company's extended health benefits program will mean workers can be cut off when they need the family coverage for such things as drugs and dental care.

"They are putting an extra financial burden on the workers and their families at exactly the time when their income is plummeting because they can no longer work," he said. 

Bonnie Gostola is a vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the province's largest union with more than 95,000 members.

She said Copping's focus on balancing the scales between employees and employers reveals a lack of understanding of the purpose of a government-funded disability insurance system. Workers cede their right to sue under this system and in return they expect protection for their income and their health.

"Allowing the employer to fire a worker after two years on workers compensation doesn't sound to me like they are protecting the worker," she said. 

With files from Jordan Omstead