Alberta using ‘immoral’ incentives to deny WCB benefits, charges labour group: AFL critical of bonuses paid to staff who trim caseloads, says premium rates for dangerous industries a...

Alberta's Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) is the only board in Canada that pays bonuses to staff as an incentive to trim their caseloads, according to the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), which wants the "immoral" practice stopped.

The AFL is also critical of the rates the WCB collects, pointing out that it collects the lowest premiums in the country from employers in dangerous industries.

According to the AFL, employers in the province's oil and natural gas exploration pay 55 cents per $100 of payroll in WCB premiums. Companies in the rest of Canada pay four times as much at $2 per $100 of payroll. Industrial construction companies in Alberta pay $2.04 per $100 of payroll. In the rest of Canada, construction companies pay $4.30 per $100 of payroll.

"The Alberta WCB's low premium rates and its immoral bonus system for case managers are two sides of the same coin," said AFL president Gil McGowan. "After years of putting a priority on premium reduction, the Alberta WCB simply doesn't have the funds to fulfill its mandate of supporting and rehabilitating injured workers. Sadly, instead of increasing premium rates, the board has focused on finding new ways to deny claims and otherwise reduce pay-outs. This perverse and despicable bonus system is the pinnacle of this process."

The AFL's comments came in the wake of revelations by Alberta's Liberal Party that the WCB paid $8 million in bonuses to its 1,500 employees in 2009 for meeting corporate goals, including getting injured workers back on the job and off benefits. (That amounts to an average of $5,600 per worker, and the program - called "goal sharing" - has been in place since 1999, according to the WCB.)

Hugh MacDonald, the Liberal employment critic, said it was "unfair" and distorts the objectivity of the WCB.

WCB spokeswoman Jennifer Dagsvik told the Calgary Herald there is nothing wrong with the bonuses because all decisions about when a worker is fit to return to work are based on medical advice.

"We wouldn't send someone back to work just to make a bonus," Dagsvik said. "If we weren't doing it well, it would come back on us. And it isn't. We have audits that are done and people are staying successfully at work . . . and when I say successful, I mean a healthy return to work."

A survey of other provinces conducted by the AFL revealed that no other Canadian WCBs give bonuses to their case managers for closing files or meeting "quotas."

The closest that any province came was Newfoundland and Labrador which, a few years ago, tried to introduce a job description for its WCB case managers stating that one of their priorities would be to consider the "financial viability" of the board when making their decisions, according to the AFL.

That clause in the job description was eventually eliminated after the union representing WCB workers raised strenuous objections on the grounds that it would make it difficult for their members to carry out their core responsibility - which is to provide benefits and support to injured workers based on the best medical advice, not on financial objectives or targets set by management.

"It's perhaps not surprising that Alberta is the only province that has this kind of perverse bonus system. We're also the only province where WCB employees are not represented by a union," said McGowan. "No union would ever have allowed this kind of system to be imposed. It puts WCB staff members in a horrible conflict-of-interest position."

McGowan said that the bonus system in Alberta literally adds insult to injury for injured workers.

Alberta has a higher workplace fatality rate than the rest of Canada (5.9 per 100,000 workers compared with 4.2 per 100,000 workers in the rest of Canada), said McGowan, and there are more people working in dangerous occupations than other provinces (22 per cent of Albertans work in the four most dangerous industries versus about 15 per cent in other provinces).

"Given these realities, the Alberta WCB should be collecting more premiums and paying out more for benefits and rehabilitation than other provinces. The fact that they don't - and instead are constantly focused on premium reductions for employers - shows that the Alberta WCB's priorities are seriously confused," he said.

Canadian Safety Reporter, Sat July 28 2010

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