Workers from all regions of New Brunswick rallied in front of the provincial legislature building in Fredericton on Tuesday, October 24 to protest what they see as a continual deterioration of workplace injury compensation in the province in the last two decades.
WorkSafe NB, the program that is supposed to compensate workers in this province who get hurt on the job, has buckled under employer pressures to reduce contributions to the system, said Daniel Légère, president of CUPE New Brunswick, the union which organised the rally. According to Légère, this has resulted in a decrease in the rate of compensation received by the worker, excessive and continually lengthening wait times for workers in getting their claims processed, and the loss of some rehabilitation services formerly available to injured workers.
Patrick Colford, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, in a passionate address to the rally said: “For too long, WorkSafe New Brunswick has bowed down to the demands of the employers…. Workers have given up way too much. It’s time for us to stand shoulder to shoulder, unite all workers, and demand better of the people who are put in these positions to represent us.” Labour leaders say that recent decisions by the WorkSafe NB board of directors have been biased in favour of employers.
New Democratic Party leader Jennifer McKenzie told the crowd that “For about thirty years now, employers have benefited from some of the lowest premiums in this country, while workers suffer from the deeming process, the three day waiting period, and other Work Safe policies that do not follow the spirit of workers’ compensation legislation.”
WorkSafe NB is the inheritor of workers’ compensation schemes going back to 1918 legislation which took away worker’s rights to sue their employers over injuries and substituted instead a guaranteed, collective insurance program.
It is funded entirely by mandatory employer contributions calculated as a percentage of worker’s salary.
Workers’ compensation in New Brunswick almost went bankrupt in the early 1990s because employer contributions were too low relative to pay-outs to injured workers. In 1993, the Liberal government of Frank McKenna responded to the problem by passing Bill 55, which slashed the amounts workers were entitled to receive, as well as placing a heavier onus of proof on the shoulders of the worker.
Légère recalled that this marked a serious downturn in the position of injured workers: “Everybody involved in the reform in 1993 did the workers of New Brunswick a disfavour… McKenna had two options: he could make the employers pay the premium they had to pay in order to maintain the services to injured workers; or cut services to injured workers. He chose the latter.”
Since then there have been opportunities to restore the position of workers but these have been passed up by successive governments. “Since the 1990s, there have been years when Work Safe has had massive surpluses, but instead of using those surpluses to give benefits back to workers, they’ve lowered the employers’ rates even further,” said Légère. “Even with a fifty percent increase, the employers’ rates would be lower than they were in 1992.”
The employer contribution rate for 2017 is $1.48 per $100 of assessable payroll. In 1991, it was $2.40 per $100 of assessable payroll.
The union leaders say that the reduction in employer contributions has put WorkSafe once again on the brink of insolvency. They say that recently the executive board of WorkSafe, which is a crown corporation supposedly operating at arms length from the provincial government, found that a thirty to fifty percent increase in employer contributions would be needed to maintain worker benefits at their current levels. The fact that the board then announced on October 2nd a much lower increase of only 15 percent appears to the unions as evidence of inability or unwillingness on the part of the board to exercise its mandate in the face of government or employer pressure.
While the economies at WorkSafe mainly impact injured workers, front-line staff of WorkSafe itself are also feeling an effect.
Légère said that due to the lengthening of times for claim processing, staff are interacting with injured workers who are increasingly frustrated and, at times “nasty.” “It’s a very stressful environment to work in,” he said.
One front-line staff person, Tamara, spoke to the rally about issues that she and her colleagues are “facing in the workplace when it comes to processing claims and dealing with injured workers who are in crisis.” “My members are coming to me on a daily basis and they’re reporting that they’re overworked, they’re burnt out, and they’re not being replaced when they’re absent.” This further impairs the ability of the company to serve workers in a “timely manner.” Tamara reported that “We have been bringing these issues to the executive leadership at WorkSafe NB for over two years … and we have been told that they have no intention of adding any more front line staff.”
Deploring the general deterioration of the program, Daniel Légère said: “We’re drawing the line in the sand now. It’s time to push this back.”
Norm Knight writes on labour issues for the NB Media Co-op.