New legislation on the way to curb soaring WorksafeNB premiums

The Higgs government is introducing legislation designed to rein in soaring Worksafe New Brunswick premiums.

PC government hopeful legislation passes before Christmas

Employers say premiums to WorkSafeNB are costing their businesses too much money. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

The Higgs government is introducing legislation designed to rein in soaring Worksafe New Brunswick premiums.

Starting Jan.1, employers will pay an average of $2.92 for every $100 of payroll — a figure that's almost double what they were paying just two years earlier.

But if the legislation passed quickly, there's a narrow legislative window that would allow WorkSafeNB to partially roll back the increase before Jan. 31.

Labour Minister Trevor Holder said he hopes the three opposition parties in the legislature will support the legislation and allow it to pass before Christmas.  

Labour Minister Trevor Holder hopes all three opposition parties will support and pass the legislation before Christmas. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

"We don't want to rag the puck any longer," Holder said at a news conference.

"The fact is our workers need to be protected in this province and our employers need a climate in place so they don't have those burdens placed upon them that make them uncompetitive."

The changes are based on recommendations by a task force that issued a report in July.

The other parties said they're inclined to support the legislation, though Green Leader David Coon said he'd like to see a quick examination of the bill by a committee of MLAs.

"We have seen too many times bills that are rushed under pressure ending up having problems," he said.

Green Party Leader David Coon said he would like to see the Tory bill first head to committee for review. (CBC)

"Does this legislation actually implement the recommendations in a way that has the implications or the consequences that were desired or intended from the recommendations? That's what we need to be sure of."

Coon said even with that step, the bill could still be passed before Christmas.

Employers pay premiums to WorkSafeNB to cover the Crown corporation's operations, including benefits to workers injured on the job.

With the 2019 increase, the Crown corporation estimates the 7,000 smallest employers in the province will be forking over an additional $700 each.

Lessen appeal tribunal's power

The legislation would end the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal's power to overrule WorkSafeNB policies when hearing claim cases. That power was created by legislation passed in 2014 by the previous Progressive Conservative government.

The independent task force made up of employers and workers concluded earlier this year that the new powers for the tribunal, and its rewriting of WorkSafeNB policies, drove up the costs of benefits, forcing the board to raise premiums.

WorkSafeNB said in the past four years the cost of future benefit payouts has totalled $800 million, a cost that premiums must cover.

The premium was $1.11 in 2016, $1.48 in 2017 and $1.70 this year.

Business groups applauded the legislation.

"We really see this as a turning point in the long-term financial sustainability of Worksafe," said John Wishart, CEO of the Greater Moncton Chamber of Commerce.

Business organizations have warned that spiralling premiums, along with tax increases and other rising costs, will make it harder for employers to hire people. They welcomed the announcement of the legislation.

The task force recommended in July that the province amend the legislation so that tribunal rulings are no longer "of a general nature" and apply only to the individual worker's case.

It also said the tribunal should not have the power "to alter, very, reverse or amend" any WorkSafe policy but only to "bring to the attention of WorkSafeNB" policies that need changing.

Appeal tribunal chair Daniel Theriault said he's not convinced his body's powers are to blame for the higher costs and he's worried it won't have the power to act under the changes if it concludes that WorkSafeNB's policies aren't complying with the law.

But "the tribunal will do what we've always done, which is work within the legislation," he said.

The legislation will also phase out a three-day waiting period that forced workers who are too injured to work to wait for that amount of time before collecting benefits. The waiting period will be reduced by one day each year until it's eliminated in 2021.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he wants to look more closely at the legislation but "at face value, from what I see, I think it would be a necessary thing, a good thing."

Liberal MLA Roger Melanson said his party is likely to vote in favour as well, pointing out the task force was set up by the previous Gallant government.

"If those recommendations that were made by the task force are what's in this legislation, we'll certainly support it."

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