Sep 082020

By Michael J. Prince

As the COVID-19 pandemic endures, the federal government continues to announce new programs to support the financial security and well-being of working Canadians. But not everyone is covered by them.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), introduced in April and scheduled to end in late September, will provide $76 billion to nearly 8.6 million applicants.

With this program, imbalances and biases in income security decisions were starkly exposed. Governments clearly expected people with disabilities to live on disability income benefits (such as the Canada Pension Plan Disability and provincial social assistance) of an amount — in most cases — of half or less than the $2,000 a month provided by the CERB.

If that was the minimum amount necessary for some Canadians to live with dignity during the pandemic, why was it not for others who face additional living costs related to impairments and health conditions? If anything, should those people not receive slightly more than their peers?

In the immediate term, Employment Insurance (EI) is being altered to enable easier eligibility and wider coverage than before.

The Trudeau government has also announced three new temporary benefits: the Canada Recovery Benefit for self-employed workers and other workers not eligible for EI; the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit for people unable to work because they need to care for a child, other family member or dependent; and the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit for those who are sick themselves or have to self-isolate because of COVID-19.

However, for working age adults with disabilities these benefits provide little comfort.

The expanded EI and these three new benefits are not available to disabled, working-age Canadians and others who worked less than 120 hours in the past 52 weeks, who are unemployed, not on unpaid leave, or not in the labour force at all. Many are discouraged from the labour force due to the presence of attitudinal and material barriers and the absence of accommodations and inclusive workplaces.

Among working-age people with disabilities, more than 1.5 million, or 41 per cent, are unemployed or out of the labour market entirely. Among those with severe disabilities, this rate increases to over 60 per cent.

That some will get a one-time federal payment of $600 is too little, too late. This meagre one-time federal payment is cold comfort, exposing once again inequities and systemic gaps in income security policies toward people with disabilities.

The need is clear for a new federal income benefit for working-age Canadians with disabilities.

The case for a Canada disability benefit is not tied to the pandemic response and recovery, although this may prove an appropriate political context in which to enact one. Rather, it is linked to Canada’s commitments under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Accessible Canada Act of 2019.

Any new federal benefit for disabled Canadians must be ongoing social protection for individuals and families, not just a temporary program.

To be adequate and to recognize the everyday costs for people living with significant disabilities, a Canada disability benefit amount should at least be $600 per week, indexed to the cost of living and adjusted quarterly like seniors’ benefits. Depending on the eligibility criteria, the annual cost could be $5 billion to $6 billion.

Recipients of this new disability benefit should be allowed to maintain their current health supplements and, like the Canada Recovery Benefit, be able to work and supplement their income through earnings –– with a generous earnings exemption and investments in accessible employment services and inclusive workplaces.

A national disability benefit would be the next great step in providing an adequate basic income for a group too long overlooked by governments and too long forced to struggle for dignity. Of course, many details need to be discussed in consultation with disability organizations and other groups across the country.

This benefit is long overdue. The speech from the throne later this month is a perfect opportunity for the Trudeau government to begin the process of this crucial reform.

Michael J. Prince is Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy at the University of Victoria and was a member of the COVID-19 Disability Advisory Group to Minister Carla Qualtrough.

Jun 192012

WCB bonuses for getting injured workers back on the job criticize

CALGARY – Alberta is the only province where Workers Compensation Board staff get bonuses for swiftly getting injured workers off benefits and back to work – and must discontinue these “immoral” incentives, according to the Alberta Federation of Labour.

It was revealed last week that Alberta’s WCB uses bonuses to reward staff who help return the injured to work.

The AFL said Alberta is alone in using such bonuses. “The use of financial incentives to encourage WCB case managers to disallow claims or move injured workers back to work when they may not be ready for it is not only a built-in conflict of interest, we go so far to say it is an immoral abuse of the workers’ compensation system,” said Gil McGowan, president of the AFL.

Board spokeswoman Jennifer Dagsvik said Alberta’s focus on helping injured workers get back to work is also meant to aid in a healthy recovery. The longer an injured worker is off the job the less likely they are to ever return to work, she said., Sun July 25 2010

What this is really about:

Conservatives in the U.S. claim that these draconian measures are all simply about state budgets facing deficits and trying to rein in spending. This is a smokescreen.

As Prof. George Lakoff, former communications guru to President Barack Obama’s election campaign, said in the Huffington Post: “If the Wisconsin plan to kill the public employees’ unions succeeds, then there will be little union money in the future to support democratic candidates. Conservatives will be effectively unopposed in raising campaign funding in most elections, including the presidential elections. This will mean a thoroughly conservative America in every issue area.”

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times: “Gov. Scott Walker claims that he needs to pass his bill to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. But his attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget. In fact, those unions have already indicated their willingness to make substantial financial concessions – an offer the governor has rejected. What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab – an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy.”

Why is collective bargaining so important?

Lakoff explains: “The real point of collective bargaining is the idea of fairness inherent in democracy. Without unions, large corporations have an unfair advantage in hiring individual workers: Workers have to take what is offered, a fair wage for work done or not. Unions help to even the playing field, enabling workers to have a fair chance against wealthy, powerful large organizations – whether corporations or governments.”

He continues: “If those unions are destroyed, American life will become unrecognizable in a remarkably short time. Democracy as we know it is at stake in the Wisconsin protests, not just budgets and unions.”

The situation in Canada:

Canadian media, including the Edmonton Journal, the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, have recently covered a report by a Winnipeg think-tank called the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which claimed that public-sector pay raises in a decade from 1998 had risen faster than private-sector pay. (It ignored the previous decade, which saw an attack on public-sector pay and jobs and overlooked the overall decline in middle-class incomes while executive rewards soared, even in a time of financial chaos.)

This study and others by groups claiming to represent taxpayers or small businesses have been used for years to undermine the public sector and the important work they do providing vital public services.

This pressure is growing. If the anti-union, anti-middle class, anti-democracy moves in the U.S. succeed, you can be sure you’ll see them here.

Summer-Fall 2005

Allegations of fraud

A former Alberta WCB Case Manager made some very serious allegations of fraud against the WCB in an article from the Edmonton Journal – Sept. 11/99

Pressure on at WCB, ex-staffer says \ Case managers encouraged to deny claims, cut payouts to injured workers.

Case managers at the provincial Worker’s Compensation Board are pressured by their supervisors to deny claims or reduce payouts to injured workers as a cost-saving measure, claims a former WCB employee.

The WCB looks for ways to save money by minimizing the income-support payment s injured workers receive, and by reducing their permanent disability awards, says former case manager Kevin Becker.

“It’s done in a very convert ways,” said Becker, who worked for the WCB from 1991 to 1997.

“You (the case manager) put in an earning loss claim for a worker, and your manager will come back and say “No, we can save money if we say the employee is capable of doing some work, when we know he’s not.”

“Or you are told to tell the injured worker he had a pre-existing condition, like arthritis in his back and he isn’t eligible for disability payments. It’s that kind of thing.” He said the WCB’s prime strategy seems to be a war of attrition – “keep denying and the worker will give up. ”

Becker, who has a consulting firm and also is an advocate for injured workers having trouble getting WCB payments, said the practices appear to be the same today as they were when he left two years ago. “The focus is on liability – how much liability are case managers able to clear away to protect the WCB fund,” he said.

But a WCB official denied Becker’s claims, saying the board’s primary focus is on customer satisfaction, both for employers and for injured workers.

Becker’s comments come as Human Resources Minister Clint Dunford is deciding whether to investigate a number of complaints against the WCB by injured workers. Becker didn’t blame individual case managers or supervisors. Instead, he blamed a corporate culture which he says pays more attention to the bottom line than to injured workers. “They have lost sight of what they’re supposed to be, which is protection for the worker,” he said.

Employees who save the WCB the most money tend to get promoted while those who are deemed to be too generous to injured workers are often forced out of their jobs, he added. “The system generates a lot of statistics on which case managers are costing the most,” he said. “Those who are, tend to get ridden a lot harder by supervisors. There’s a lot of constructive dismissal.”

But a WCB official disputed his allegations. “At no time has there been any motive for case managers to deny benefits,” said Nancy Saul-Demers, director of corporate communications for the WCB. She said staff members are paid bonuses based on worker and employer satisfaction, not on the amount of money the WCB saves. “Any bonuses they receive are tied to corporate objective that revolve around customer satisfaction,” she said. “The motivation is to ensure that workers are satisfied. We wouldn’t try to do that by reducing benefits.”

WCB payouts for income support, medical costs and rehabilitation have been increasing yearly, which She cited as proof the WCB isn’t slashing benefits to save money. The average cost per claim has risen to $9,200 this year from $8,500 in 1997.

But Becker said he noticed a shift in attitude in 1993 and 1994, as the WCB attacked its mounting deficit.

“They started digging up old claims,” he said. “We were told to take a look at old earning losses and to see if we could reduce it. We were phoning up workers who had received entitlements for years, and saying we’ve just reviewed it, and decided that you’re capable of earning more, and next week your cheque will be less.”

He left in 1997 to do human resources consulting work for the David Thompson Health Authority. He also turned his WCB experience into a career in workers’ advocacy. :

”It’s my impression the WCB has become much worse since I left,” he said.

From the Canadian Injured Workers Alliance newsletter: