This week, the public review period ended for WorkSafeNB’s latest consultation as they look at “benefit improvements.” Currently, people receiving worker’s compensation benefits receive 85% of their annual income based on a maximum income of $69,200 – which is the highest amount in the Maritimes. WorkSafeNB is proposing to increase the benefit to 90%, even though the Maritime provinces are currently aligned at 85%. At the same time, they are proposing to increase the maximum income amount on which their benefits are based up to $78,419. The estimated cost to the system of implementing these two potential changes is $5.7M to $6.9M annually.
After the 2015 legislative changes implemented by the Government of New Brunswick resulted in unexpected skyrocketing assessment rates, the business community is anxious regarding any new substantive reforms to worker’s compensation policy which will cause costs to increase. In our opinion, any proposed increases to benefits or assessment amounts must be preceded by, or at the very least, coupled with enhanced return-to-work policies and procedures. WorkSafeNB’s own research has clearly demonstrated that returning to work is best for employee recovery and is critical for keeping the system sustainable and functional.
In her 2018/2019 report, New Brunswick’s Auditor General found that a ‘return to work’ goal was not embedded in WorkSafeNB’s processes, which has been identified not only as a major driver of costs, but also a hinderance to worker recovery – the sooner the employee can return to work, the better their health outcomes are, WorkSafe has previously reported.
Effective and efficient return-to-work processes and procedures are important to help eliminate fraudulent claims, and the lack of enforcement of these rules distorts data, erodes trust in the system and is a disservice to employers and employees alike. Abuse of the system and the perception of an inability or unwillingness to enforce the conditions of benefits is cause for additional concern regarding increasing benefits.
Our organization is also concerned with the timing of proposals to increase benefits as many businesses are just beginning to recover from the effects of the pandemic and any increased financial burden will mitigate gains in economic recovery or growth. It is this growth and the revenue generated by the private sector that funds the government in its entirety and worker’s compensation specifically.
Changes to an important system like worker’s compensation do not happen in vacuum; it is important to examine the broader picture when considering the effects on employers. Parallel to these proposed changes to WorkSafeNB are a broken supply chain, a workforce crisis, the remnants of COVID-19 government support programs and the proposed expansion of the Employment Insurance system by the federal government – amongst other challenges for businesses.
Of course, these pressures are in addition to the negative impacts to businesses that an inflation rate at a nearly 40-year high is currently producing. This means that employers are seeing costs rise from multiple directions – the costs of goods are increasing and wages are increasing. Given that programs like WorkSafeNB are based on total payroll, wage increases further drive assessment amounts upward, which increases overall costs to businesses.
Furthermore, as current benefit levels are already on par with other Maritime provinces and these provinces are more broadly working on several fronts to align economic and social policy, New Brunswick should not look to actively become out-of-step with the other jurisdictions.
One of the fundamental issues with the current worker’s compensation regime in New Brunswick is the lack of communication between the various parties. Other provinces have figured out ways to respect privacy rights while providing a more transparent system that results in employees getting healthy and returning to work sooner – what everyone wants. We can’t reasonably hope to improve our return-to-work rates (or the system itself) without better communication between employers, injured workers, medical practitioners and WorkSafeNB. A system built on transparency and communication will provide a foundation of sustainability. Before we even begin to consider increasing costs, rates and insurable earnings levels, the priority of WorkSafeNB should be focused on return-to-work.
Businesses are putting their best foot forward and displaying a brave face in their social media and to their customers and employees, but don’t kid yourself – they are still struggling and cannot continue to withstand immense pressure from every direction.
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, a nationally accredited organization with more than 1,000 members, is an active business organization engaged in policy development and advocacy that affects the competitiveness of our members and the Canadian business environment. The Chamber’s vision is ‘Stronger Community Through Business Prosperity’.