The government in British Columbia, Canada, passed a law in August to improve the province’s workers’ compensation system, as well as to make several modifications in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The changes took effect immediately. They include fast-tracking compensation and benefits for workers in at-risk industries in the event they contract the coronavirus while on the job, said Richard Savage, an attorney with Fasken in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“Our government has taken action to provide the most significant improvements to the Workers Compensation Act in more than two decades,” said British Columbia Minister of Labor Harry Bains in The Province. ”The current pandemic has highlighted the need for modernization, for stronger occupational health and safety protections, and a more balanced workers’ compensation system.”
Some highlights of British Columbia’s Workers Compensation Amendment Act, effective as of Aug. 14:
- Authorizing preventive medical treatment on pending claims when a claimant’s health could deteriorate.
- Expanding liability for unpaid premiums to directors of corporations.
- Permitting the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia, or WorkSafeBC, to seek unpaid premiums for third parties indebted to delinquent firms.
Other changes will take effect Jan. 1, 2021.
The Workers Compensation Act will also raise the maximum annual salary amount on workers’ compensation benefits to $100,000 Canadian dollars (approximately $75,226 USD). Then, at least 90 percent of workers in British Columbia will have 100 percent of their earnings covered if they cannot work because of a workplace injury, according to the government.
“WorkSafeBC has amended the Workers Compensation Act of [British Columbia] to reflect modern times,” said Craig Yee, principal and industrial hygienist at OHS Global, an occupational health and safety consulting firm in Vancouver.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, WorkSafeBC has allowed businesses to defer their employer insurance premiums for six months without penalty or interest. “WorkSafeBC is helping businesses and workers get back on their feet,” Yee added.
At the start of the pandemic, experts forecast that employees in certain industries—such as food services, health care, law enforcement, retail, restaurants and transportation—may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure given their proximity to the public.
WorkSafeBC has seen substantially more health care and social service workers applying for compensation due to COVID-19 than any other industry, Savage said.
“Outside of health care, agriculture and the manufacturing of food and beverage products have had high instances of claim acceptance, which suggests that they are at-risk industries,” he added. “With the reopening of many businesses and industries, we may begin to see other hot spots where workers are not able to practice social distancing in the workplace.”
With school back in session in British Columbia, WorkSafeBC has reported nine claims from workers in the province’s education sector in September.
“Teachers could be considered at-risk,” Yee said. “If there is reasonable evidence a teacher contracted COVID-19 while at work, then there is a possibility that some claimants could be compensated, as school classroom settings are considered a workplace under WorkSafeBC.
“With COVID-19, long-term effects and related occupational disease claims are yet to be determined, but some previously infected individuals report they are still experiencing health effects even after they have recovered,” he added.
Workers’ Compensation in Other Canadian Provinces
In Ontario, a proposed bill addressing workers’ compensation could add a presumption that COVID-19 is an occupational disease for employees working for essential businesses, wrote Hilary Page, a lawyer at SpringLaw in Toronto.
Currently, Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board has been adjudicating individual claims arising from COVID-19 infections in the province, Page wrote.
Alberta has specific reporting requirements for work-related COVID-19 infections, wrote Matthew McCarthy, an attorney with Gowling WLG in Toronto. Employers are required to report cases of COVID‑19 to the Workers’ Compensation Board-Alberta (WCB) when an employee is at a greater risk than usual of contracting the virus while at work and if that employee loses time from work after contracting the virus.
HR’s Role in Workers’ Compensation
Human resources departments work in tandem with the operations side of a business, which is responsible for workers’ compensation, said Cissy Pau, principal consultant at Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver.
“HR practitioners are the link between the workers’ compensation board, the employer and often times its workers,” Savage added. “HR professionals are required to engage with the system for it to function: reporting injuries, working on vocational rehabilitation and protesting claims that do not appear to be caused at the workplace.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pau said, HR needs to ensure the following policies are in place:
- Cleaning protocols, such as disinfecting surfaces and providing hand sanitizer.
- Instilling safety practices, such as social distancing, a mask-wearing policy and documenting how many employees have access to the workplace.
- Providing effective communication methods, including contact tracing.
“For HR professionals working in potentially at-risk industries, they should be aware that their workers may be entitled to benefits in the event that they contract COVID-19 and to communicate that information where appropriate,” Savage said. “Ensuring that their businesses continue to comply with their provincial workers’ compensation board and public health guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19 needs to remain front of mind while we remain in a state of emergency.”
Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.