WorkSafe B.C. crit­ics de­ride re­turn of funds

NDP, unions say work­ers, not em­ploy­ers, should ben­e­fit from sur­plus as­sets

Times Colonist - - The Capital - KATIE DeROSA kderosa@times­colonist.com

The B.C. gov­ern­ment’s plans to di­vert sur­plus WorkSafe B.C. funds back to em­ploy­ers has drawn heavy crit­i­cism from unions and the Op­po­si­tion who say that money would be bet­ter spent in­creas­ing dis­abil­ity com­pen­sa­tion for in­jured work­ers or beef­ing up safety in­spec­tions to pre­vent in­juries in the first place.

The gov­ern­ment an­nounced plans, if re-elected on May 9, to amend the Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion Act so that it would re­quire WorkSafe to re­turn funds to em­ploy­ers when it has a sur­plus of con­tri­bu­tions from em­ploy­ers in the ac­ci­dent fund.

Shirley Bond, min­is­ter of jobs, tourism and skills train­ing and re­spon­si­ble for labour, said WorkSafe has more as­sets than li­a­bil­i­ties in the ac­ci­dent fund and the cur­rent leg­is­la­tion does not pro­vide di­rec­tion on how to man­age the sur­plus.

Aaron Aerts, B.C. economist for the Cana­dian Fed­er­a­tion of In­de­pen­dent Busi­ness said it has been meet­ing with WorkSafe over the last year to raise con­cerns about the large sur­plus. “We re­ally saw the trend go­ing to­wards a bal­loon­ing fund and that gave us some cause for con­cern be­cause ob­vi­ously that’s em­ploy­ers money go­ing into it,” Aerts said.

In 2015, the as­sets ex­ceed­ing li­a­bil­i­ties in the fund were $4.5 bil­lion, with an as­set to li­a­bil­ity ra­tio of 138 per cent, Aerts said.

The gov­ern­ment did not give fig­ures for the sur­plus or how much could be re­turned to busi­nesses.

NDP MLA Shane Simp­son, the party’s spokesman for labour and jobs, said the B.C. gov­ern­ment is the prov­ince’s largest em­ployer so it will reap the largest ben­e­fit from this plan at the ex­pense of in­jured work­ers.

“The gov­ern­ment for 15 years has been erod­ing ser­vices to in­jured work­ers whether it was re­duc­ing loss of in­come, pen­sions, re­duc­ing the way that peo­ple are sup­ported,” Simp­son said. “So if you have this ex­tra money, how come you’re not im­prov­ing ser­vices to in­jured work­ers that we al­ready know are not ad­e­quate in­stead of giv­ing this money back?”

Simp­son said in­jured work­ers have to go through a lengthy process for com­pen­sa­tion af­ter a work­place in­jury or have to ap­peal when com­pen­sa­tion is de­nied.

In 2002, the gov­ern­ment un­der Premier Gor­don Camp­bell an­nounced sig­nif­i­cant re­forms to the Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion Act, which slashed its bud­get by 12 per cent and re­sulted in the clos­ing of sev­eral WorkSafe of­fices. Com­pen­sa­tion ben­e­fits for peo­ple with work-re­lated in­juries or ill­nesses were changed from 75 per cent of gross salary to 90 per cent of net salary. For work­ers earn­ing $40,000 a year, this meant a ben­e­fit re­duc­tion of about $225 per month.

Stephen Hunt, di­rec­tor of United Steel­work­ers District 3, who spent six years as labour rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the WorkSafe board, said the B.C. Lib­eral plan will re­turn money to the party’s big­gest donors “on the backs of the work­ers who, un­for­tu­nately, need the sys­tem. “When the [WorkSafe B.C.] board plays with num­bers and re­duc­ing costs for em­ploy­ers it doesn’t make work­places any safer,” Hunt said.

Irene Lanzinger, pres­i­dent of the B.C. Fed­er­a­tion of Labour, said she’s “shocked and ap­palled” by the move. “Why are we giv­ing this money back to em­ploy­ers when there are so many ar­eas both on the com­pen­sa­tion side and the pre­ven­tion side that need at­ten­tion?” Lanzinger asked. “This is the gov­ern­ment giv­ing a gift to em­ploy­ers at the ex­pense of healthy and safe work­places and com­pen­sa­tion for in­jured work­ers.”

WorkSafe dis­putes that it is short-staffed or con­duct­ing is fewer in­spec­tions than in 2001, be­fore the Camp­bell gov­ern­ment’s cuts to WorkSafe B.C. the fol­low­ing year.

In 2001, there were 28,599 in­spec­tion re­ports. In­spec­tion re­ports dropped to 15,941 in 2004 but reached 41,589 in 2016.

There were 201 pre­ven­tion and in­ves­ti­ga­tion of­fi­cers bud­geted. That fell to 180 in 2004 but in 2016, there were 296 of­fi­cers bud­geted, which WorkSafe says is the most of­fi­cers at any time in its his­tory.

“As well 2016 had the fewest num­ber of trau­matic in­juries over the past decade. Since 1990, the rate of work-re­lated deaths due to trau­matic in­juries has de­clined by 72 per cent,” said WorkSafe B.C. spokesman Scott McCloy.

Bond said in a state­ment: “Em­ploy­ers fund the work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion sys­tem in our prov­ince and we think their money should be re­turned to them when the sys­tem is over­funded.” She said the move will ben­e­fit the small busi­nesses that help drive growth and job cre­ation. “This is about strik­ing a bal­ance to have the funds needed to help in­jured work­ers and their fam­i­lies now and into the fu­ture while lim­it­ing vo­latil­ity in pre­mi­ums that em­ploy­ers have to pay.”

The gov­ern­ment said pre­mi­ums have de­clined steadily since 2000 be­cause the pro­vin­cial work­place in­jury rate has de­clined.

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