Edmonton

Proposed end to WCB fair practices office 'shortsighted', critics say

A decision to disband an office set up to help Albertans navigate work injury claims and act as an ombudsman for the Workers Compensation Board is being criticized by the chair of the committee that recommended it three years ago. 

Cost savings are estimated at $2.5M a year

Labour Minister Jason Copping says dissolving the Fair Practices office and transferring its functions elsewhere will save money and streamline operations. (John Shypitka/CBC )

A decision to disband an office set up to help Albertans navigate work injury claims and act as an ombudsman for the Workers Compensation Board is being criticized by the chair of the committee that recommended it three years ago. 

"I think it's incredibly disappointing and I think it's incredibly shortsighted," said Mia Norrie, an Edmonton lawyer and labour relations consultant. 

Norrie chaired a review of the WCB system under the previous NDP government. The report, released in July 2017, made 60 recommendations, including the establishment of an independent Fair Practices office. The office was created at the end of 2018. 

Bill 47, Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, 2020, now under debate in the Alberta legislature, rolls back changes made by the previous NDP government made to the WCB. If passed, the bill dissolves the Fair Practices and Medical Panels offices by April 1, 2021.

Cost savings are estimated at $2.5 million a year. With offices in Edmonton and Calgary, the Fair Practices office had a budget for 54 full-time equivalent employees. 

The office has several functions — acting as an ombudsman to review complaints about fairness, helping people navigate the WCB system, and assisting workers and employers with appeals of WCB decisions. 

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping said Alberta is the only province with three independent offices so he wants to integrate them into one as a cost-cutting measure. 

Copping says employees in the advisory services part of the Fair Practices office will become the responsibility of the chief appeals commissioner. 

"My expectation is that, not only are we going to reduce costs, but we'll be able to have one person responsible for streamlining the service and will get faster," he said. 

The ombudsman function of the Fair Practices office will be delegated to a new fairness review officer. However, that individual will not be independent as they will report to the WCB board. 

Edmonton Mill Woods MLA Christina Gray, the NDP opposition critic for labour, created the Fair Practices Office when she was labour minister. 

She said she was stunned by the bill's proposal to move responsibility for fairness reviews to a single person. 

"Last year, the Fair Practices office had roughly three hundred concerns around fairness," she said. "In 100 cases, they found breaches and that was just one small piece of the work that they were doing."

WCB complaints will increase again

Norrie, who sat on the WCB board of directors from 2008 to 2011, said the change will end up hurting Copping and other MLAs.

Prior to the establishment of the Fair Practices office, MLA constituency offices received more complaints about WCB claims than any other issue, she said. 

The old system forced ministers to contact the board directly about cases, which Norrie said is inappropriate since the government is supposed to be arms-length from the WCB. 

Norrie said returning to the old system means those calls will resume. 

"It's going to be the number one call they get and they're going to be back in that uncomfortable and inappropriate role of calling the WCB or having no other avenue in which to ensure that the work is being done," she said. 

Norrie said her WCB review panel consulted widely with both employee and employer groups. While there was disagreement on many issues, she said both sides agreed on the need for a Fair Practices office because employers could use its services too. 

Bill 47 passed second reading on Wednesday night. The NDP caucus plans to introduce amendments, including one about the Fair Practices office, when the bill heads into the committee of the whole stage of debate next week. 

now