October 27, 2020
By Merrill O’Donnell – Workers’ Advocate
ON March 12, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and the world as we knew it changed.
Almost immediately, the focus in the construction sector was on occupational health and safety protocols and personal protective equipment, with the BC Building Trades leading the way.
Within days of us aggressively injecting ourselves into the issue and demanding better protections for workers, a host of health and safety measures were implemented in keeping with the Provincial Health Services Authority’s orders and existing Occupational Health and Safety Regulations. The result? Only 10 COVID-19 claims had been filed by construction workers throughout the province as of June 10, 2020.
Meanwhile, the issues respecting eligibility for compensation benefits if a worker contracted COVID-19 while working fell to me. While this matter was discussed in several forums, the rubber hit the road in the Policy and Practice Consultative Committee (PPCC), the Workers’ Compensation Board’s premier consultative committee consisting of four workers’ representatives, four employers’ representatives, and several senior WCB staff.
Given the rapid transmission of COVID-19 and the pressing need to accept compensation claims from workers employed outside of their homes, my fellow workers’ representatives and I began “beating the drum” for a presumptive clause in the Workers’ Compensation Act. If properly drafted, a presumption clause would enable WCB case managers to expedite compensation claims from those diagnosed with COVID-19 or showing symptoms of this communicable viral pathogen. Instead of having to adjudicate the claim on a case-by-case basis, they could presume that the worker contracted the disease while working outside of the home unless the contrary was proven.
My colleagues and I employed various strategies and tactics to push this effort forward. We even drafted up the appropriate legislative language to get the job done. On April 20, our efforts as well as those of other progressive sources resulted in WCB’s Board of Directors instructing the WCB Policy, Regulation and Research Division (PRRD) to amend Schedule 1 of the Act to add a presumption for COVID-19.
Three weeks earlier, on May 29, the PRRD released their discussion paper and gave the public until June 15 to respond. The BC Building Trades in cooperation with the BC Federation of Labour submitted their response on June 10. Many of our building trades affiliates endorsed the submission.
What now? Now we wait. The WCB’s final decision with respect to claim coverage for COVID-19 and other diseases caused by communicable viral pathogens will show whether our members’ health and safety is of the utmost importance, or whether the value placed on our members arises solely from their commodified essential services.