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PAT CULLEN: Making conditions better for injured workers

Man hands with carpenter's plane on wooden background
Man hands with carpenter's plane on wooden background

Benefits from WorkplaceNL should provide a safety net for sick and injured workers. 

Pat Cullen

Dennis Hogan, its chief executive officer, says the commission has a claims acceptance rate of roughly 97 per cent. Mary Shortall, president of the Newfound and Labrador Federation of Labour  says “over time we’re seeing  more claims get denied.”

Meanwhile, some questions arise as to the manner in which people receiving benefits are living. At present, if they get their full entitlement they receive 80 per cent of their net pre-injury earnings. But is this enough to allow them to live with dignity? For some it is not. It means a lessened standard of living which pushes them into poverty.

What of those who do not receive that full 80 per cent? Perhaps they have a pre-existing condition which casts doubt that their illness or injury is completely job-related. There are also those who cannot get their conditions covered by compensation.

Then, as the workers fight for what they feel is their due, their claims can become entangled in the  appeals process. It’s a process which Shortall says could take years.

Hogan says a decision on an appeal is made within 45 days by the internal review division of WorkplaceNL. If it is rejected there, it goes to the independent Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Review Division (WHSCRD). The number of appeals going there appears to be minuscule.

“Year-over-year the proportion of all appeals has been relatively consistent with approximately 0.01 per cent of all decisions made by WorkplaceNL’s Worker Services Department going to appeal with the external Workplace Health Safety and Compensation Review Division,” he said in an email.

WHSCRD is an independent body whose commissioners “…review decisions of WorkplaceNL for compliance with the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act and Regulations and the policies of WorkplaceNL,” a government statement read. While the decision of WorkplaceNL is reviewed, the original evidence leading to that decision might not be. Every appeal has a different time-line for adjudication.

There is also some debate around the percentage of earnings an injured worker should receive. The Federation of Labour wants it raised to 90 per cent of pre-injury net earnings, while The Report of the 2013 Statutory Review Committee on Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation recommend raising it to around 85 per cent. That report, according to Shortall, is required by legislation to be completed every five years but its recommendations are not required to be implemented.

Certainly, labour groups feel the 2013 report has not been given much attention. Patricia Dodd, president of and spokesperson for the Newfoundland Labrador Injured Workers Association, a voluntary group, said, “it’s like it’s been shelved.” Mary Shortall agrees. “We have been lobbying government to come out with the legislative changes to respond to those recommendations. We keep hearing they’re going to do it but they haven’t done it yet.”

When asked why there is a requirement for a report, but no requirement to have its recommendations implemented, a Sept., 13 email from Service NL, under whose jurisdiction the report falls, read in part: “In considering these recommendations government must keep in mind … the need to ensure a balance between the needs of workers and employers.”

The Ball government implemented… “presumptive cancer coverage for career and volunteer firefighters,” according to a statement from Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh, while Shortall says the Progressive Conservative government “lifted the maximum earnings cap slightly, shortly after the recommendations came out.”  But, she added, it deviates from previous reports where government responded to all or some of the recommendations within a reasonable time-frame, adding that most of the 42 policy recommendations have to date been ignored.

“The law has not been amended. Workers’ benefit levels have not increased,” she said.  A statement from  Service NL says “…an assessment of all the recommendations in the statutory review is still in progress.”

The cap on benefits has been raised to $63,420. It is, according to Dennis Hogan, “adjusted annually based on the Consumer Price Index.” It is the highest in Atlantic Canada, but according to Shortall “the fourth lowest” in the country. The cap means that should you earn a salary of say $100,000 a year and you claim benefits from WorkplaceNL, you will receive on full entitlement 80 per cent  pre-injury net earnings of that $63, 420-and no more. The Federation of Labour wants the cap eliminated. The federation also assists injured workers and or their dependents free-of-charge with issues related to compensation through its Office of the Workers Advisor. The office  serves those in unions and those who are not.

Meanwhile, Mary Shortall wants to see a more “active” injured workers’ association established and an ombudsperson who would deal only with issues pertinent to claimants of WorkplaceNL. This would no doubt make a huge difference to those grappling with a system they don’t quite understand or they feel is working against them.

Such an association would become a powerful lobby group for the injured worker, while an ombudsperson would handle the daily complaints of those involved with workers’ compensation. Dodd, although apparently unfamiliar with Shortall’s call for such a group said, “there needs to be an organization that could assist injured workers the moment that they’re injured, not only when they find themselves in difficulties.”

That is an excellent point. Intervention before a situation becomes critical. There are injured workers in this province who are cold, hungry, living in sub-standard housing, afraid to speak out because they have an appeal before the commission and they don’t want to jeopardize it. There are others who return to work before they’re well, simply to avoid destitution.

It is my contention that injured workers at the lower end of the pay scale should be given their full net earnings while they are healing and also be given every medical opportunity to heal. The same consideration could be given to the more highly paid-on a case-by-case basis. To do otherwise is tantamount to booting someone out the door because they are no longer of any use to you.

Pat Cullen is a journalist who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or cullen.pat1@gmail.com.

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