As New Brunswick’s WorkSafeNB Task Force nears completion of its work, with a report expected in late 2017/early 2018, there seems to be confusion in the province about the recent cost increases, the interests of employers and the nature of workers’ compensation generally. New Brunswick’s Ombud, Charles Murray’s appearance before the task force and subsequent interview on CBC Radio has highlighted some of the misconceptions with the public, which I will endeavour to address.
Perhaps the most foundational misunderstanding Mr Murray states is characterizing workers’ compensation as a ‘social support’ program rather than an insurance system. Social programs by definition are funded through a government department or agency. The WorkSafeNB system is outside of this scope - it is a pooled fund supported by employers of the province who provide 100% of the premiums.
Similarly, Mr Murray takes issue with the idea that government and WorkSafeNB should be concerned with ‘balancing’ the interests of workers and employers. This is a peculiar position since the entire system is based on a balance - that’s what a compromise involves. He states that business benefits from the certainty of the system - which is true. However, workers also benefit from this certainty, with more than 90% of claims being approved.
The alternative is the court system, which is highly uncertain for both parties, although the negative consequences of relying on the courts would seem to be much higher for workers than employers. Workers further benefit from employers having the certainty of the workers’ compensation system - it allows them to plan expand, and create jobs. That’s what’s currently under threat. Or perhaps the issue here is simply semantics. When WorkSafeNB, government and business talk about a ‘balance’ - what we are really talking about is the ‘sustainability’ of the system. What must be understood is that the interests of workers and employers are almost entirely aligned - that’s why a compromise was possible in the first place.
It is unclear how Mr Murray envisions the system being sustainable. In his CBC interview he states both that the system “...costs what it costs” and “everything has to be done within a reasonable economic cost”. On one hand he acknowledges that there is a limit to what the system can reasonably cost and on the other hand suggests it’s somehow ‘morally wrong’ to talk about how to balance fair benefits with long-term sustainability.
The suggestion that only certain types of companies are concerned about WorkSafeNB rates is not accurate - every business is concerned with costs, they wouldn’t be in business for long if they didn’t. This doesn’t mean that business owners don’t care about employees or would put them in dangerous situations and it certainly doesn’t mean they want less protection for workers. What it means is that revenue and expenses matter in the private sector - we can’t survive without that balance. WorkSafeNB understands that. The minister understands that. The province’s workers understand that.
We agree that WorkSafeNB rate alone shouldn’t deter a business from locating to New Brunswick. That’s why we are clear that WorkSafeNB premiums are just a part of a growing list of the increases (some of that list: gas tax, diesel tax, property tax, income tax, land transfer tax, minimum wage, HST, EI premiums; and in the next two years: carbon tax, federal tax planning changes, new statutory holiday, CPP increases). What’s different with WorkSafeNB is not only the 53% increase over the past two years, but the fact that because of the legislative changes in 2015, there is no reason to think that this will slow down at any point without government intervention.
Premiums have been lower than the national average over the past few years, due in large part to New Brunswick having one of the lowest workplace injury frequency rates in the country and that it has been consistently falling as employers continue to embrace a culture of safety. Reductions in WorkSafe rates in previous years were not subsidies to employers from the system, but rather a result of overpayments that employers made in previous years that are being returned. It is akin to calling tax refunds from CRA subsidies, rather than your own money being returned because you paid more than was required.
Finally, we do agree that WorkSafeNB’s decision to reset their funding target to 100%, down from 110% was ill-advised. Not only does it make the fund less sustainable - it’s a bad business decision. This is money that will have to be paid in future years anyway. I don’t know of any group or individual employer that has made that suggestion to the task force or government. New Brunswick employers not only see the value in keeping their workers healthy and on the job, but they also care about them as people and consider them their work family. It is unfair and inaccurate to frame the WorkSafeNB issues as one of employees vs employers. There aren’t really sides here - a functional, sustainable workers’ compensation system is everyone’s goal.
Krista Ross is CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce. With more than 950 members, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce is one of Atlantic Canada’s largest chambers of commerce. A dynamic business organization, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce is actively engaged in policy development that affects the competitiveness of our members and of the Canadian business environment. It’s vision is "Community Prosperity Through Business".