Richard Alexander, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council, outlined the council’s problems with the provincial workers’ compensation system. — Photo by Daniel MacEachern/The Telegram
With public consultations on workers’ compensation set to begin next week, the Newfoundland and Labrador Employers’ Council is calling for major changes to provincial legislation.
Richard Alexander, executive director of the council, outlined the organization’s major problems with the system at a news conference Thursday morning at the Capital Hotel, touching on its cost and the average length of claims in the province.
“Workers’ compensation is an important system, but in Newfoundland and Labrador, unfortunately, the cost of running the system is excessive,” he said, saying it’s the most expensive program in the country because it covers 98 per cent of the workforce, rather than the national average of about 82 per cent. “If you have the most extensive system, you will also have the most expensive system, unless you have the most aggressive legislation, and we do not have aggressive legislation in Newfoundland and Labrador when it comes to workers’ compensation, and that’s what we need. We need new legislation.”
Premiums in this province have ranged between 33 per cent and 89 per cent higher than the national average for the past two decades, said Alexander, laying out three major problems the council has with the system:
‰ Too much political influence in the system. Alexander said the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Commission lacks the required independence from government to operate efficiently.
‰ Newfoundland and Labrador has the longest average claim duration in the country by far. The length of time it takes someone to return from work after an injury is 122 days, more than three weeks longer than the second-place province, Nova Scotia (98 days), and nearly twice the national average of 65 days.
‰ Compensation benefits for seasonal workers aren’t fair to year-round workers. Alexander said provincial legislation allows for seasonal workers to receive benefits at a rate based on their pay when they’re at work, even during the off-season. “In fairness to all workers, seasonal workers should not be better off financially on workers’ compensation than if the injury had not occurred.”
Derek Butler, the executive director of the Association of Seafood Producers, said the province’s current system is unsustainable. “We don’t have the money in the bank to cover the cost going forward for injuries. That could impact on workers in the future, just like the provincial government now has to rejig and look at its budget and reduce costs. Down the road, as our workforce contracts, we could be in a position where we say, ‘Look, workers’ comp isn’t working. We’ve got to deny benefits.’ The trick now is to make the system viable.”
Sharon Horan, vice-chairwoman of the board of trade and CEO of Fit For Work, which prepares injured workers to return to the workforce, said despite a significant reduction in the injury rate over the last decade, the duration of claim is still too long.
“This isn’t about impacting negatively premiums for injured workers,” she said. “We cannot sustain this system if we continue at the duration rate we’re having.”
Lana Payne, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, said the employers’ council’s problems with the system are rooted in an erroneous assumption that workers are abusing the system.
“There are all kinds of checks and balances in the system — if someone is better, they go back to work. You have to have a doctor’s note to be still off. I don’t know where they’re getting at this, as if people determine themselves that they’re going to continue to be out of the workplace,” she said. “I just find it so friggin’ offensive that someone gets injured in a workplace, and it becomes the worker’s fault. It’s incredible to me that they keep insisting that the problem is with a worker who’s been injured in their workplaces, rather than maybe we should be doing something to make our workplaces safer to start with.”