The Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) Review Panel report released on July 6, 2017 contained sixty (60) separate recommendations for changes to WCB service culture, their approach to worker health and wellness, support of return to work, provision of benefits, sustainability of the system, reviews and appeals, and injury and illness prevention supports. The recommendations appear to have been well considered and thoughtfully presented, and the report provides the Panel’s rationale for many of the recommendations being provided. Though my original intent had been to provide a summary of the proposed changes, the breadth of the report would be hard to condense into a few short paragraphs. Instead (in no specific order), I offer the reader the top 10 recommendations I believe will be of interest to the industry.
There was some concern that the WCB in Alberta would follow the example of Saskatchewan in expanding presumptive coverage for Post-Traumatic Stress related claims to include occupations other than first responders. Employers may be surprised (and relieved) that the report does not recommend “expanding Alberta’s presumptions beyond those presently in place.” Instead, the Panel limited itself to requesting an amendment to the definition of “first responder” in the Workers’ Compensation Act so that it includes correctional officers and emergency dispatchers.
One of the more contentious decisions of the WCB this spring was to hold back payment of surplus moneys from their Accident Fund until the publication of the Review Panel’s report. In the past, when the fund had exceeded its target thresholds due to better than expected investment returns, the surplus has been distributed to employers. The Panel has recommended putting an end to this practice, explaining that this money does not represent overpayment by employers. They assert that any surplus investment income should be used “for the benefit of workers and employers to support a sustainable workers’ compensation system.” The Panel recommends that a new policy for use of any excess money be established, and that the money from 2016 be used to offset any increases to employer assessments that might be caused by other recommendations in the report.
Questions about WCB staff incentive/bonus programs were addressed earlier this year by the Board itself, likely in anticipation of a recommendation abolishing their use. The Review Panel did not disappoint. While the report acknowledged the difficulty of substantiating concerns that staff bonus programs were influencing how claims are managed, it formally recommended the prohibition of “performance pay, pay-at-risk, [and] bonuses…that tie the compensation of WCB employees to performance measures.”
The Panel identified that a low level of awareness and understanding of the WCB system exists, especially among the medical community, despite repeated attempts by the WCB to raise awareness. A recommendation to increase the level of knowledge and awareness of the WCB system was formally included in the report. It is hoped that success in this area will “help build better greater capacity in the medical community to diagnose and treat…work-related injuries and illness, and support workers’ re-engagement with the workforce.”
Recommendations 22, 23 and 24
A critical component of the Review Panel’s work was an effort to consider WCB legislation, policy and practice in other Canadian jurisdictions. One area where they chose to recommend following the example of several other provinces was to officially recognize an employer’s obligation to return workers to work once they have suffered a workplace injury or illness. They further recommend that workers be obligated to cooperate with their employer’s plan to return them to work. Specific policy recommendations based on the size of the employer and relevant timelines are part of this recommendation. A third recommendation would clarify an employer’s ability to terminate a worker for “egregious conduct” even if the worker is on modified duties or working under a return to work plan.
A number of changes around worker compensation were also recommended, including a change to how cost of living adjustments are calculated. The WCB currently provides this increase annually based on an amount equivalent to the Alberta’s Consumer Price index minus .5%. The Panel was unconvinced that this policy was fair to injured workers, and has recommended that these adjustments be made without the .5% reduction.
The Panel also heard concerns from injured workers whose employer benefits programs were often interrupted during the time they are receiving WCB compensation payments. To address this, it was recommended that an amendment to the Workers’ Compensation Act be made to “establish a requirement that an injured worker continues to be covered under their existing health benefits programs.”
The WCB in Alberta has historically functioned without a requirement for regular review. In fact, the last review of the Board was 15 years ago! The Review Panel believes the Workers’ Compensation Act should require regular reviews of the Board, and is recommending a further review in three years, and every five years after that. This will allow for follow-up on the results of the 2017 review, as well as ensure regular, ongoing maintenance of the WCB’s programming.
As you can imagine, there is a lot more detail to be had by reading the report in its entirety. A summary of all sixty recommendations can be found in the report’s appendix, but I highly recommend you read the body of the report. It includes not only some of the background needed to understand the issues, but also contains a short explanation for the thought processes behind each decision. You can find the report posted here: https://www.alberta.ca/wcb-review.aspx.