June 16, 2020
President and CEO
Dear Ms. Naser,
Unifor fully supports the Workers Compensation Board’s move to add COVID-19 to Schedule 1 of the Workers Compensation Act.
The COVID-19 pandemic is posing unprecedented challenges to the health and economic wellbeing of people all around the world, including British Columbia. The response from all levels of society has been exemplary. It has been marked by a sense of social solidarity and a significant public sentiment that we must protect and support all people who are affected, especially the most vulnerable.
At the same time, workers in specific occupations have stepped forward at risk to their own health, to provide healthcare, first response, and other frontline service to the public (such as transit, pulp and paper, and retail). Other workers are in essential service jobs, which puts them at risk even though they do not encounter the public (including many vital people behind the scenes such as delivery drivers and cleaners as well as construction workers on essential projects). We must always have their protection and wellbeing in mind.
Understandably, the main focus for worker supports in the early days has been on expanding the national social safety net, including Employment Insurance Benefits, as well as various additional financial supports to individuals, families and businesses. Yet there is another vital part of our Canadian safety net, which can play an important role – our Workers’ Compensation System.
As of June 12th, 2020, BC’s COVID-19 Dashboard shows that 62% of BC’s positive COVID-19 cases are in the working-age population.1 As of June 3rd, 2020, 532 injured workers filed COVID-19 claims and only 215 of their claims have been allowed.2
The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious health threat to all, and the situation is evolving daily. The risk will vary between and within communities, but given the increasing number of cases in Canada, the risk to Canadians is considered high.3
It is our position the current pandemic environment places BC workers at increased risk for COVID-19 infection as an occupational disease. Furthermore, we argue the risk of a worker contracting the COVID-19 virus is significantly greater than the ordinary exposure risk for the public at large in BC. We believe receiving Workers Compensation benefits is preferable to going on Employment Insurance (it reflects our responsibilities as a society to the workers), covers the cost of rehabilitation if needed and documents the illness in case it has long-term effects. In addition, data collected on occupational illnesses will be vital components of developing public policies. COVID-19 is not an economic issue caused by a down turn in the economy. COVID-19 is an illness that caused the down turn as such it should be reflected in the nature of benefits in helping workers.
1. The Novel Coronavirus is an occupational health and safety issue. Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, employers must take every reasonable precaution to ensure the workplace is safe. Workers then rely on the Workers Compensation System when prevention fails to provide benefits while they heal.
2. Workers at risk of Covid-19 infection are those who routinely have close face-to-face contacts with the public/colleagues, and/or exposure to infectious agents. According to the World Health Organization, the transmission of the Novel Coronavirus occurs via close contact and respiration. It is then the responsibility of the employer to adopt control measures to eliminate or mitigate the expose to the hazard in the workplace. Once the control measures fail, the Workers Compensation System pays the injured worker benefits regardless of how the injury occurred. This is one of the key principles that underlies the workers compensation system; no-fault compensation, which means workers are paid benefits regardless of how the injury occurred. The worker and employer waive the right to sue. There is no argument over responsibility or liability for an injury.4
3. By creating a presumption that a worker who tests positive for COVID-19 has an occupational disease due to the nature of the worker’s work, the worker no longer has the burden to prove that his/her condition was the result of or likely result of a work-related exposure. Instead, the burden of proof is shifted to the employer to prove the worker did not contract COVID-19 in the workplace.
4. Presumptions are created for a number of reasons. They promote fairness by simplifying proceedings and by making it less burdensome for claimants to gather evidence that is more accessible to the party against whom the claim is asserted. Further, it eliminates unnecessary cost associated with the proof of the illness arising out of and in the course of employment.
5. We can learn from the health care sector. In Ontario, more than 5000 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19 which represents over 17% of the total infections in the province. The prevention measures are failing. How do we change the course of action? The employers need to have an incentive to step up worker protection.
We support WorkSafeBC’s proposal to adjudicate COVID-19 claims using the presumptions available for occupational diseases under the Act. For example, Psittacosis virus and tuberculosis are already in Schedule 1 of the Act and in our view the case to include COVID-19 in the Schedules of the Act is even stronger given the urgency of this situation. It is vital that workers who unconditionally in the course of employment are putting their lives on the line for the rest of us, they should be confident that they will receive compensation as result of the illness caused by COVID-19.
Unifor Western Regional Director