Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape – Bill 47
In March 2016, the Alberta Government initiated a review of the province’s workers’ compensation system, which included feedback, comments and input from key stakeholders and other interested parties. The results of the review were compiled and introduced to the Alberta legislature as Bill 30: An Act to Protect the Health and Well-being of Working Albertans. Bill 30 was passed into legislation late December 2017 and the changes were implemented throughout 2018.
Not surprisingly, there was some fallout based on the broader scope of the legislative changes that had some unexpected, unfair and often negative implications for employers and workers. In response, the Alberta government, again, invited input from the general public and stakeholders from July 9 to August 14, 2020 on key areas impacting Alberta’s workers’ compensation system. The Workers’ Compensation Legislative Review 2020: What We Heard summarizes the feedback gathered from eighty-one stakeholders.
As a result of the information gathered and out of concern about the long-term viability of the workers’ compensation system and its sustainability, Bill 47: The Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act was introduced to legislature in November 2020.
Bill 47 was passed in the Alberta Legislature on December 9, 2020 and many of the proposed changes will go into effect as of January 1, 2021. The following are a few of the main key workers compensation components of Bill 47 and some insight on how the changes may impact employers and workers:
- Reinstatement of the Cap on Insurable Earnings: Prior to Bill 30, an injured worker’s wage loss benefits were based on 90% of their net insurable earnings up to a maximum amount established by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). At the time the cap was removed, in 2018, that amount was $98,700; meaning that any worker earning more than $98,700 per year would only be compensated for a portion of their annual income. Bill 30 removed that cap and workers were eligible to receive 90% of their actual net annual earnings with no limit on the amount. While this may seem reasonable, the implication for employers would be a faster accumulation of costs on any claim to which this applied. This increase in claims costs would be realized in higher WCB premium rates and payments for employers. The reinstatement of the cap helps to contain claims costs and premiums. All workers have the option of taking out supplementary private insurance to cover wage loss in the event of injury or illness, which would cover any discrepancy between what the WCB pays and what they actually earn. It should also be noted that the WCB has not announced what the new cap will be and it may, in fact, be more in line with Albertans wages.
- Health Benefit Plan Contributions by Employers No Longer Mandated. Bill 30 made it mandatory for employers to continue to pay their portion of a worker’s extended health benefit contributions for up to one year post accident. Bill 47 removes this obligation as it was determined that any medical benefits that are related to their injury will always be covered by WCB and non-WCB benefits are beyond the scope of the workers compensation act. Many employers voluntarily continue coverage for injured employees and/or offer workers the ability to make the contributions for themselves.
- Obligation to Rehire and Duty to Accommodate Removed – It was determined that a duty to accommodate a worker with a disability was already covered under Human Rights legislation therefore addressing it under Workers’ Compensation was redundant. It was also noted that 90% of all injured workers were voluntarily reinstated and/or accommodated with their date-of-accident employer. Duty to Cooperate was added to encourage employers and workers to mutually facilitate a safe and early return to work plan. Provisions were also introduced giving the WCB the ability to reduce or suspend wage loss benefits to workers for non-compliance with the collaborative process. Employers are penalized for non-compliance by the continuance of wage loss benefits while a worker is deemed unfit to return to their full duties.
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Presumptions Narrowed – Before Bill 30 was implemented, the presumption that a PTSD diagnosis that was work-related was restricted to first responders, correctional officers and emergency dispatchers. Bill 30 broadened the presumption to apply to all workers with a PTSD diagnosis. Bill 47 narrows the presumption back to what it was pre-Bill 30 and once again will only apply to first responders, correctional officers, emergency dispatchers and any other class of worker as prescribed by regulations. While this doesn’t preclude other workers from claiming for PTSD it does allow the WCB to take a closer look at each circumstance and make a clear determination on the work-relatedness of the situation. This ensures a more accurate initial entitlement decision and avoids the extra time and costs associated with claims accepted in error.
- Medical Panels Office and Fair Practices Office Dissolved – In an effort to reduce administrative duplication and the associated costs, Bill 47 will abolish both offices. Bill 30 changes introduced the Fair Practices Office and a Medical Panels Office ; both of these entities were paid for by WCB funding – in other words, by employer premiums and WCB investments. While both offices will be gone by April 1, 2021, their purpose and function will not disappear. Instead of underwriting the cost of an entire office, including all the administrative expenses, a medical panel can still be assembled to help resolve medical opinion conflicts and a Fair Practices Officer will continue to help workers and employers navigate the workers compensation system and provide assistance for appeals free of charge.
- Appeals Commission (AC) appeals time limit reduced from 2 years to 1 year – as part of the implementation of Bill 30, the time limit to submit an appeal of an AC decision was increased to 2 years. Bill 47 reduces the window of appeal back to one year in an attempt to resolve disputes in a more timely and efficient manner. While this puts the onus on workers and employers to pay closer attention to timelines on decisions, it encourages appellants not to procrastinate and leave issues hanging in the balance for too long.
Taken together, the bill’s changes are meant to streamline procedures and encourage workers and workplaces to better manage risks — not to benefit employers at the expense of workers’ rights and protections. However, as with any legislative proposal, there are critics on either side citing the inequities of the suggested changes. While there are economic benefits that will be realized by employers and the WCB, it must be kept in mind that if businesses close because of financial hardship created by increased WCB premiums then workers will not have jobs to go to and if the workers compensation system collapses, any worker that can find a job will no longer have any protection or benefits.
In 2019, the WCB covered almost 1.9 million Albertans under more than 159,000 employer accounts. It is a delicate balance the WCB has to maintain: providing the utmost services and benefits to injured workers without crippling employers with extraneous costs, while trying to remain solvent. This year, in particular, with so many businesses financially stressed due to the impact of COVID-19, it is perhaps more important than ever that the WCB keep its equilibrium.
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Further details and additional information regarding Bill 47 can be found here: