New bill would roll back NDP changes to Alberta workplace safety rules

·4 min read

A new bill introduced by the Alberta government would reinstate a cap on maximum earnings used to calculate worker's compensation benefits, and end a requirement for an organization to reinstate an injured worker.

Bill 47, the Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, is the latest legislation proposed by the government that would roll back workplace safety measures and changes to workers' compensation board rules implemented by the previous NDP government.

Labour and Immigration Minister Jason Copping said measures in the bill are required to reinstate "balance" to the WCB system and manage costs.

"At a time when Alberta's economy and job creators are struggling the most, employers have told us that some of these changes have led to rising costs, additional red tape, and has put the system's future state of sustainability in doubt," Copping said.

The bill would end the mandatory requirement for employers to reinstate injured workers with more than 12 months of service, which was legislated by the previous government.

The previous NDP government ended the insurable earnings cap in 2017. Bill 47 would reinstate that cap to either 90 per cent of a worker's net earnings at the time of the injury or a maximum that would be set by the WCB using a formula.

The bill proposes to close the independent Fair Practices Office and Medical Panels Office set up by the NDP to help injured workers make their way through the WCB system. The government said closing the two offices will "remove duplication" and save $2.25 million a year.

If the bill is passed, only first responders such as firefighters, police officers, corrections officers and paramedics would get presumptive coverage under WCB for injuries related to trauma. The previous government extended that coverage to all workers.

Copping said the changes were required to make WCB more sustainable.

NDP vows to fight changes

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the reintroduction of a cap would create real hardship for injured workers and she vowed the NDP caucus would fight the bill in the legislature.

"The workers' compensation board was not set up to be a cheap insurance scheme for employers," she said.

"It was set up to be a balance between workers and employers and in Alberta it doesn't achieve that objective. And people suffer as a result."

The duty for employers to accommodate an injured worker is a constitutionally protected right not widely understood in Alberta prior to the changes introduced under her government, she said.

Notley was a labour lawyer prior to her life in politics. She said she heard the stories of "countless" injured workers and their families and knows the toll the system can take on them is real.

Notley referenced those families when asked how she felt about the UCP chipping away at changes made during her time as premier.

"I was so proud that our government was able to able to bring Alberta up to a level that existed in other provinces," Notley said.

"And quite frankly, how I feel is angry on behalf of those families, on behalf of their children, on behalf of the families across this province who are just like them."

Bill 47 would undo the 2018 changes to the occupational health and safety act, which Copping said imposed rules that were "impractical" for workplaces.

The bill proposes changes to outline when refusals of unsafe work are "appropriate" and changes to the definition and reporting of "near misses," incidents that could have caused death or injury.

Copping said employers are still required to investigate and report what he called "potential serious incidents." He said the bill would add a clause so that companies couldn't be held liable.

"We want to encourage reporting so we as a government can look at these numbers and then spin that back to the industry, identifying potential issues and areas for training," he said.

The government is introducing a new $100,000 tax-free payment to the families of first responders who die on the job as part of Bill 47.

The "Heroes Fund" will be administered by the WCB, which will determine eligibility.

If the bill is passed, most changes to the Workers' Compensation Act would take effect Jan. 1, 2021.