Soft economy keeps injured workers home: Modified work boosts morale

Alberta workers seriously injured on the job in the past two years stayed home longer afterwards due to a soft economy with fewer opportunities for "modified work," the Workers' Compensation Board said Thursday.

"Opportunities present themselves when the economy is good. When it is not, we need to find them," said Guy Kerr, president and CEO of Alberta's WCB, speaking at the board's annual general meeting in Calgary on Thursday.

The modified work program allows employees to return to the workplace and take on a less-rigorous task even while they recover from an on-the-job injury. The WCB says modified work boosts morale, while also decreasing a worker's time off and reducing the costs associated with each claim.

According to the WCB's 2010 annual report, the drop in modified work started in 2009 and continued into last year.

The WCB measured this by the increase in the average time it takes for an injured worker to return to a job.

For employees injured seriously enough to have to take time off work, the average number of days absent was 32.1 in 2008. By 2010, that number had jumped to 36.1.

Overall, Kerr characterized the board as functioning smoothly.

He said the province has a "stable, affordable and effective" workers' compensation system, and client surveys show that 85 per cent of employers and more than 78 per cent of workers are satisfied with WCB services.

However, a number of workers and their advocates at the meeting expressed concern about the modified work program, and listed a number of other WCB grievances.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, held a press conference prior to the meeting to highlight the role the board played in the illegal release of one worker's medical information -as ruled on by Alberta's privacy commissioner this week. "This kind of slapdash approach to medical privacy is simply not acceptable," said McGowan.

McGowan also said the WCB sometimes pushes workers back to work too quickly, before they're ready -largely through the modified work program.

"We think this is an organization that puts a priority on reducing premiums for employers," McGowan said.

Richard Truscott, Alberta director of the Canadian Federation for Independent Business, said he wishes there was time allowed for more than just a few questions during the meeting. For instance, he wanted to ask about increasing average insurance rates paid by employers.

"Maybe they need to have an annual general meeting, but also have a series of stakeholder meetings."

Truscott added it's likely opportunities for modified work will improve this year and next as the province's economy revs up.

Although the Alberta WCB is a government-created entity, it is not a provincial department or crown corporation, but an employer-funded insurance body.

The board is meant to provide workers or their families with predictable, dependable benefits in the event of injury or death.

The trade-off is in most cases workers are unable to sue their employers.

Calgary mechanic Peter Harvey, also at the meeting, said he was injured while working on a truck in November 2005. "I wrenched my shoulder," Harvey said.

He wanted to talk to the board Thursday about his case because he believes he hasn't been treated fairly, and the WCB hasn't recognized that he will never be able to do physical work again. Harvey is still getting some benefits, but said he is now "close to bankruptcy."

He has now hired a consultant to help him.

"It is life, but what workers comp does is makes it worse," Harvey said.

Calgary Herald, Fri Jun 17 2011
Byline: Kelly Cryderman

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