Ontario urged to follow B.C. with presumptive workers’ compensation for COVID-19

Article from The Star, May 11, 2020.

VANCOUVER—British Columbia is changing its workers’ compensation system to make it easier for those sick with COVID-19 to make claims for lost pay — the type of reforms Ontario workers have been seeking for more than a month.

All workers in industries deemed essential by B.C. will be able to make a claim to workers’ compensation without having to prove they got the disease at work.

It’s a matter of adding COVID-19 to a list of presumptive conditions acknowledged by WorkSafeBC — the provincial occupational health and safety body.

Critics in Ontario say it’s another reminder that their province could be doing more to protect essential workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines.

“We now have over 2,000 health care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19,” reads a May 5 letter sent by Ontario Federation of Labour president Patty Coates to the premier and two ministers.

“They and other essential workers need to know that your government has their back — that if they get sick or need to be quarantined, our workers’ compensation system will fully support them.”

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) first asked the province to ramp up its workers’ compensation program in a written proposal on April 3. It included the demand that essential workers sick with COVID-19 should not have to wonder whether their claims for compensation will be accepted.

When Ontario workers get sick or injured on the job and lose pay because of it, they make claims with the Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB), the provincial body that adjudicates claims and administers payouts. Usually, the onus is on the worker to prove that the injury or illness took place at work — otherwise their claim could be denied.

But there are exceptions. Certain conditions are presumed to be work related for insurance purposes in specific job categories. For example, a firefighter who develops cancer can get workers’ compensation without having to prove the cancer was related to smoke exposure — it’s presumed that’s the case.

For Jennifer Whiteside, a spokesperson for B.C.’s Hospital Employees Union, which represents care aides and other health-care workers, the new changes are a crucial step to keeping workers physically and financially safe.

“It means they will have fewer hoops to jump through to get their claim accepted,” she said, adding it would hopefully help ensure the worker uses the time they are sick to stay home and get well, without feeling pressured to get back to work too early.

“We can’t afford to be losing health-care workers for long periods of time due to illness,” she said.

Although a positive measure, Whiteside says it’s not the same as guaranteeing sick pay provisions to workers in all essential industries — where the standard number of paid sick days varies across industries and workplaces. And she wants to see presumption applied to mental health conditions related to working through a pandemic also.

The addition of COVID-19 as a presumptive condition will also take six months to kick in — a delay that could be significant, especially for low paid workers.

“The B.C. government’s emergency powers give it the authority to swiftly act to protect workers — both the essential workers we’ve asked to show up throughout this pandemic, and those who return to work as we enter the next phase,” B.C. Federation of Labour president Laird Cronk said in a press release. “It’s time to use those powers.”

WSIB and WorkSafeBC both published data last week on the number of COVID-19 related claims they had received since the beginning of the pandemic. The Ontario body received 3,004 COVID-19 related claims as of May 5, while the B.C. body received 340 as of May 6.

Health-care workers represented 428 total coronavirus cases in B.C. at the end of last month, while the number in Ontario is more than 2,200.

Coates, the OFL president, referred to B.C.’s action in her May 5 letter and urged the province to follow suit. Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

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