WCB changes took effect Thursday changing workers protections and closing the Fair Practices Office

Major changes came into effect for Alberta’s Worker’s Compensation Board (WCB) coverage Thursday.

Through Bill 47, the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, the United Conservative Party is rolling back changes to workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety rules brought about under the previous New Democratic Party (NDP) government.

The Alberta government hailed Bill 47 as removing burdens on businesses. Opponents to the changes say it slashes protections for workers.

One of the most controversial changes included removing Alberta employer’s legal obligation to rehire and accommodate injured workers. Instead, employers have a “duty” to cooperate with injured workers to support the worker’s early and safe return to work.

Most changes took effect once the bill was passed in December 2020.

Some changes to workers compensation took effect in January this year while closing the Fair Practices Office and changes to medical panels were effective Thursday.

The Fair Practices Office served as an ombudsperson’s office for both employees and employers to navigate the WCB system.

Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labour president, said in an interview with CTV News Edmonton that the changes will harm workers.

“The UCP says this is about cutting red tape but from our perspective it’s about kicking injured workers when they’re down.”

Anthony Butkovic, a consultant that helps employers navigate the WCB system, told CTV News Edmonton the changes support small business owners and clears unnecessary barriers in the system.

“Especially when we look at the economic downturn with COVID,” Butkovic said, “trying to accommodate the injured workers caused hardship for employers.”

David Foster, a labour lawyer, says there are still protections in place for people injured in the job.

“There was a lot of overlap with the Human Rights Act, so there is legislation that prevents against discrimination.”

But McGowan said Bill 47 makes it harder for workers to get help when they need it, especially with the closure of the Fair Practices Office.

Bill 47 also redistributes surplus income from WCB investments from improving WCB services to a rebate to employers for contributions.

For McGowan, the system will not be able to keep up with bettering itself since there will be no money to do so.

“They want to create a surplus in the fund by rejecting more injured workers from benefits that they should be entitled to.”

Other changes under Bill 47 include:

  • Eliminating the requirement for health and safety committees and representatives to be on work sites with multiple employers and a prime contractor, such as construction sites.
  • Changing rules and definitions around dangerous work refusals to allow health and safety concerns to be resolved quicker.
  • Reinstating an insurable earnings cap for injured or ill workers.
  • Limited presumptive coverage for psychological injuries only to firefighters, police officers, peace officers, correctional officers, paramedics, and emergency dispatchers while all other workers will need to navigate the normal WCB claim process.
  • Removed requirements for employers to contribute to health benefit plans for injured workers who are off work.
  • Removing benefit of doubt provisions favouring workers where there is approximately equal evidence, such as in proceedings before a WCB medical panel.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Touria Izri