Merrill O’Donnell Workers Advocate

Merrill O’Donnell Workers Advocate

March 28, 2022

ABOUT A MONTH before Christmas, I participated in the BC Federation of Labour’s lobby of our provincial New Democratic government. The objective was to underline the importance of moving forward promptly with several initiatives: psychological injuries and presumption; asbestos; and restoring benefits for injured workers in keeping with the 2019 Patterson report New Directions. My specific task was to urge ministers and MLAs to implement the Patterson Report without further delay.

To help me stay on point, I drafted some speaking notes. My notes include a few words I may have forgotten to say “in the heat of battle” and a few things I added at the spur of the moment:

I am the Workers’ Advocate for the BC Building Trades. We represent about 40,000 unionized construction workers—ironworkers, electricians, pipefitters and many other trades. Our members work in exceedingly treacherous environments where danger is ever present. Many members get seriously injured and never fully recover. I have witnessed these workers, once strong and vibrant, broken and devastated; men and women, tough as axe handles, overwhelmed with worry and uncertainty, unable to hold back their tears; families torn apart and thrown into financial ruin. Much of what I have witnessed was caused by the existing WCB system.

Originally founded on the principles of the historic compromise, changes made to the WCB system by the Liberal government at the behest of the business community in 2002 have created an unfair system. When the BC NDP was elected, workers had high expectations. Their expectations were stoked when Labour Minister Harry Bains appointed Janet Patterson to review the WCB system.

On Oct. 30, 2019, Patterson issued her report with the problems and solutions. That was more than two years ago. Patterson made 102 recommendations and only three or four have been implemented. This is not good enough. We are here today to impress upon you the critical importance of following through on Patterson’s report. Action is required now to bring back some balance and fairness to the system.

What are some of the problems?

  • In 2002, the Liberals cut off lifetime pensions for permanently injured workers, ending them at age 65;
  • The system works on an insurance company model, focused on cost reduction;
  • Workers are compelled to return to work before they have recovered from their injuries; and
  • Inflation eats away at workers’ benefits.

What are some of the solutions?
Amend the Workers Compensation Act to:

  • Create a Fair Practices Commission independent of the WCB to deal with individual complaints;
  • Remove the binding policy provision and make decisions on the merits and justice of the case;
  • Ensure an equal balance of worker and employer representatives on the board of directors;
  • Mandate vocational rehabilitation to get workers back to real and sustainable jobs;
  • Pay interest to workers when WCB wrongly denies a worker benefits; and
  • Reinstate lifetime pensions for permanently disabled workers.

Our ask is not radical. Far from it. We are simply asking the government to fix the WCB system to make it worker-centred in keeping with the principles of the historic compromise.

That, then, is what I said.

Recently, Minister Bains issued a press release stating “my top priority will always be the health and safety of B.C.’s workers, which includes supporting those who have been injured on the job. For far too long, the needs of injured workers have not been met.”

That’s right. So now is the NDP’s opportunity. It won’t last forever. Implement Patterson’s report. Now.

By Merrill O’Donnell
Workers Advocate