NDP Labour Critic questions Former Liberal Chief of Staff on WSIB Appointment

 

Ms. Cindy Forster: Thank you, Mr. Teahen, for being here.

Mr. Thomas Teahen: Thank you.

Ms. Cindy Forster: I have a few questions for you. The last president and CEO actually got a mandate letter from the Premier, and then, when his tenure was renewed, he got another mandate letter. Have you received a mandate letter at this point in time from the Premier?

Mr. Thomas Teahen: No. All I have seen or I understand is that there’s an OIC that will be signed, hopefully, or it’s so far signed, and I believe it would be endorsed based on this committee’s recommendation, which outlines the terms and conditions of my employment or position as CEO. That’s all I know.

Ms. Cindy Forster: That’s all you know about at this point in time, no mandate—

Mr. Thomas Teahen: That’s all I’m aware of.

Ms. Cindy Forster: Okay, so my next question is with respect to the reports recently that the premium rates are going to decrease by some 17% to 18% by 2017-18. We live in a province that has one of the lowest coverage rates for workers across the country. Could you see an actual expansion to universal coverage of workplaces as a way to further reduce the rates that are already proposed to happen in the next couple of years by sharing the risk and including 30% more workplaces under WSIB coverage?

Mr. Thomas Teahen: I think what you’re referring to when you’re talking about lowest coverage rates—just so I’m clear—not the level of benefits if a worker is injured, but the number of workers that are covered.

Ms. Cindy Forster: Of workplaces; correct.

Mr. Thomas Teahen: There are approximately 75% of workers in the province who are covered today. Some of the exclusions are banks and other places. There has been some discussion about that, I understand. That would be a decision that the government would have to make in terms of whether it would want to expand coverage. The reality, though, on the premium rate side is that a significant component of the current premium rate is made up of a payment toward the unfunded liability. That’s why it’s so important to bring the unfunded liability down, because it then can lead toward the potential reduction in the premium rate.

As I say, though, it’s not just a reduction in premium rate that’s important, but also the ability to protect workers’ benefits. The unfortunate reality, when there has been such a high unfunded liability over the course of the last 50 years—when that unfunded liability goes up and down, there are only two ways that people instinctively think it should be dealt with: one is increase premium rates and the other is lower benefits. I believe getting that unfunded liability down can actually help stop that conversation and reach a better balance.

Ms. Cindy Forster: If we can get back to the universal coverage piece, originally, in the creation of workers’ compensation, there were no exclusions way back when; right? Then there were just banks and insurance companies that weren’t covered. But today, as workplaces change, we have all kinds of IT sectors and service sectors that aren’t covered. Would you be willing and open to have the dialogue about a move to universal coverage as the new president?

Mr. Thomas Teahen: Well, as I say, that’s a decision that a government would have to make. One of the opportunities, though, that I believe is available to the—and when I talked about opportunities that present themselves, if the unfunded liability were decreased and premium rates came down, it would be more affordable for many—it might well be more affordable; I’ll put it that way. It may well be more affordable for some of those workplaces that are currently uncovered to buy insurance from the workers’ compensation board, which they can do anyway, voluntarily. They’re not going to do that unless there’s a competitive rate and there’s good service, and those are goals that I intend to ensure we pursue.

Ms. Cindy Forster: I understand that WSIB is undergoing a massive technological project at the moment and that the original budget for that project was $30 million. It was supposed to be rolled out within three years, with the first phase starting as early as maybe the spring of this year. Can you tell us where they’re at with respect to keeping in line with the budget? We had, through community and social services, huge problems with the SAMS project. Can you tell us—

Mr. Thomas Teahen: I can’t speak to specifics of where they are in the budget because I haven’t been there and I have not been into the board or talked to people at the board about that in advance of this, because I’ve been very respectful of this process.

Obviously I know that there has been an IT project under way. That will be one of the first things as a president that I have to get in and understand in terms of where they are. Your point is very well taken, that managing and having effective project management over significant IT projects is critically important and is one of the challenges that any organization faces and that they have to keep a very close eye on.

Ms. Cindy Forster: You spoke in your opening remarks about the importance of the people who actually work in this industry. Are you aware there was a recent survey done of approximately 3,400 front-line staff at WSIB and that over 80% of those front-line workers felt that their workplace was unsupportive, that they were harassed, that they were bullied and that they didn’t believe that WSIB should have a standing in the top 100 employers in the province? Do you believe that it is part of your mandate to address those morale concerns with the staff?

Mr. Thomas Teahen: As I said to you in my opening, I want the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to be a place where it supports those people that make that organization work. When I was the chief of corporate services, one of the goals that I set for the organization, being responsible for human resources, was to be one of the top 100 employers in the province. It’s still one of my goals to achieve that.

Ms. Cindy Forster: Are you aware that workplace illness at WSIB sits at 35% in comparison to the national average of 25%, and that WSIB staff who experience injuries or workplace illnesses actually have their claims denied at twice the rate as the general population? So here we are, with this group of people trying to assist workers who experience workplace illness or injury having their own claims denied at twice the rate. What can you do to address that?

Mr. Thomas Teahen: I can’t speak to that statistic. I don’t know where it’s from and it’s the first I’ve heard it. What I will say to you is, as I say, I want the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to be celebrated as a place that values the people who work there. It’s a number one priority for me. It’s been a value that I’ve brought to every job I’ve had, whether it’s been practising law, whether it’s been being a chief of staff in a minister’s office or in the Premier’s office, or when I worked at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. You have to value the people who work with you and who are critical to making a workplace function.

Ms. Cindy Forster: Harry Arthurs, in his report in 2010, spoke aggressively against experience rating, which clearly leads to claim suppression, non-reporting and all those kinds of things that you’re aware of. Do you have any plans to address enforcement—because there was recent legislation introduced in the last session but it didn’t address the issue of enforcement and in what time frame they were actually going to roll that out. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Mr. Thomas Teahen: These are two separate issues, I think, or two separate questions. One is claims suppression. In the last session, amendments to the act were passed to create a penalty or an offence if an employer suppressed a claim. Employers and workers absolutely have to expect that there is integrity in the system; otherwise, the system won’t work. Obviously, now that there is a new offence in place, the WSIB has to ensure that it’s diligent in identifying circumstances where there’s a failure to report or any other activity that undermines the integrity of the system. We’ll have to put the pieces into place to ensure that’s there.

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As it relates to experience rating: It’s a debate that’s been going on between employers and the injured worker community for some time. There is a consultation currently under way regarding changes to the classification and rate group structure. That consultation is active and under way. Where experience rating fits into the system is part of that discussion. I think that’s a very important consultation that has to continue and conclude. There are important changes that need to be made to the classification and rate group structure, and within that, there has to be further analysis of where the experience rating fits.

The Chair (Mr. John Fraser): Thank you very much, Ms. Forster. You’re out of time.