Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reconsidering the utility of Alberta's experience rating program

A few weeks back, Alberta announced it will be reviewing its workers’ compensation system over the coming year. One of the topics that ought to be considered is the effectiveness of its experiencing-rate system.

Experience-rating raises or lowers an employer’s workers’ compensation premiums based upon an employer’s claims costs. The rationale for experience rating is that it creates a firm-level incentive for employers to improve safety in their workplaces that otherwise does not exist.

Broadly speaking, Alberta employers are eligible for premium surcharges and rebates of up to 40% (this can vary by employer size). Employers can also receive up to another 20% in rebates under the partners in injury reduction program.

In 2014, these programs were budgeted to operate at a net loss of $173.3 million. There is no analysis of whether these programs improved safety: fewer lost-claim incidents and lower employer claims costs can result from reporting error and employer claims management behaviour.

The academic research suggests that there is some (but uncertain) evidence to support a relationship between experience-rating and safety. But, there is strong evidence that worksite inspections coupled with penalties reduces injuries. Overall, this evidence suggests improved workplace safety is better pursued through enforcement activity.

Given that there is little evidence that experience-rating and other premium rebate programs make workplace safer (but good evidence that these programs incentivize illegitimate claims management behaviour by employers that negatively affect injured workers), Alberta ought to consider terminating these programs. The ~$175 million in cost-savings should be used to fund a four-fold increase in OHS enforcement activity by the government.

-- Bob Barnetson



Friday, April 29, 2016

Edmonton's Day of Mourning Ceremony

I took my daughter to the Edmonton Day of Mourning (for injured and killed workers) last night. It was a nice memorial in a lovely location. With the permission of the author, I have reprinted what I thought was the best speech (given by Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull, the executive director of the Alberta Workers' Health Centre).

Honoured guests, sisters, brothers, fellow workers, my fellow people:

I know a worker who is in the process of being laid off. It was announced in the fall that job cuts were coming, but that there was a three month trial period whereby it was possible that some people would keep their jobs. The caveat: the workloads would increase (still the same amount of work but less people to do it), and employees demonstrating their “dedication” to the job would be considered for being kept on in the restructuring. 

Desperate to keep her job, her livelihood, she worked hard, and managed to make the first cut. Then another round began. And she is now anxiously, nervously waiting to find out what is going to happen.

The economic downturn has made this a familiar story. It has left many tens of thousands of workers in Alberta without jobs, and scrambling to find work. And those of us who do have jobs, and especially those of us without the protection of a union, will do almost anything to hold onto our jobs.

In a recession, health and safety becomes less of a priority than before. But in a recession, people still get hurt, get sick, and get killed at work. And our challenge is to not lose sight of the importance of making workplaces safer for everyone. In a recession, we must continue to fight, and fight even harder, for healthy and safe workplaces.

Today is the Day of Mourning, the one day of the year where we gather to remember those whose lives have been lost or whose lives have been changed by workplace injuries and illnesses.

The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board lists 125 people who died in Alberta last year from workplace incidents or exposures. Additionally, there are about 50,000 disabling injuries accepted by WCB every year. But research suggests that these numbers don’t tell the whole truth. That in fact the amount of injuries every year in Alberta is much higher, as much as 10 times higher. That’s 500,000 injuries every year. That’s 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 working people.

And a large part of that number is attributed to injuries that go unreported.

Major injuries tend to be reported at the same rate regardless of the unemployment rate, probably because they are harder to hide. But in times of recession, in times of higher unemployment, in times like these where we want to hold onto our jobs, minor injuries are less likely to be reported; exposures to hazards that take a long time to show up as occupational illnesses, are less likely to be reported.

This does a couple of things:

1. it paints a false picture of how many people are actually getting hurt.

2. non-reporting means the hazards responsible for the injury do not get identified, which means the workplace does not get fixed, and more people will get hurt or sick or die.

In a recession, workers tend to take whatever jobs we can get – temporary, multiple jobs – precarious work – to pay the bills and support our families either here or back home. Precarious work means less likelihood of reporting injuries or unsafe conditions. Under the table work means the same. Multiple jobs at multiple job sites present the possibility of exposure to certain hazards at levels much higher than the threshold limits established for a single job site. And as workers we become even more vulnerable to exploitation by bad employers looking to capitalize on our need to make a living.

Our Occupational Health and Safety system is complaint-driven; it relies largely on workers being confident enough to raise health and safety issues. And yet, research shows us that workers are more reluctant to report injuries when faced with possible job loss or retribution from bad employers. So in a recession, government enforcement becomes even more important.

I recently had the honour of meeting with some members of CIWAA – the Canadian Injured Workers Association of Alberta. There is a huge stigma attached to injured workers who are often blamed for their own injuries or, because chronic pain is largely invisible, are told it is “all in your head”. A workplace injury can last a lifetime, can turn lives inside out, ruin chances for meaningful employment, damage and destroy families and relationships. Add to this ongoing struggles with the compensation system, expensive pain medication that may or may not be covered, the health effects of the medication itself, and severe depression. As one injured worker told me, “We are not the people who were killed. We are the people who are suffering, who wish they would have died.”

And so the Day of Mourning must also be about recognizing the need for fair compensation and justice for people who have been injured, and who continue to suffer as a result of their injuries or illnesses.

This day, the National Day of Mourning, is filled with numbers. 125 fatalities, 50,000 injuries, 1 day of the year. So much in our world is about reducing things to numbers and statistics, under the guise of being able to better understand information. While there is a usefulness to this, we do so at the risk of forgetting what some of these numbers actually represent. For that matter, when we talk about workers – worker fatalities, worker injuries – we risk framing tragedy and loss as something that is confined to the workplace, something that does not reach out and touch the lives of the families and communities that the worker belonged to.

So, I am going to read the list of names of people who died last year as a result of workplace incident or exposure, to honour their memory and remind us to continue to fight for the living.

Afterwards, I believe we will be inviting people up to lay some wreaths at the base of the Broken Families Obelisk behind me.

When I read the names of the officially accepted fatalities for last year, please let us also remember those workers, those people who are not named: the farm and ranch workers who were not included; those workers who passed away from occupational diseases that were not reported to, or accepted by the WCB; those workers who continue to suffer from work-related injuries and diseases. And let us not forget that we are not just talking about workers, we are talking about family members, friends, coworkers, employees; we are talking about people.

And an injury to one is an injury to all.

Christian, 79, trauma — Colin, 56, motor vehicle accident — Robert, 71, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Perry, 57, motor vehicle accident — Lorne, 60, trauma — Robert, 70, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Berne, 72, air crash — Lesley, 53, trauma — Norm, 75, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Jacob, 81, motor vehicle accident — Paul, 72, asbestosis — Bob, 63, trauma — Carl, 94, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Norman, 78, cancer — Grant, 87, asbestosis — John, 67, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — David, 61, silicosis — Fred, 87, asbestosis — Gordon, 71, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — William, 82, asbestosis — Mark, 57, trauma — Vincent, 67, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Kim, 45, trauma — Terence, 82, asbestosis — Dieter, 59, trauma — Steve, 84, asbestosis — David, 41, trauma — Sean, 42, trauma — Harry, 85, asbestosis — Paul, 69, silicosis — Brent, 49, trauma — Henry, 75, asbestosis — Verne, 77, asbestosis — Dawna, 55, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Brian, 61, pneumoconiosis — Wayne, 53, cancer — Marcel, 75, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Hayley, 27, trauma — Steve, 79, asbestosis — Larry, 65, cancer — Terry, 66, cancer — Edward, 71, cancer — Eugene, 85, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Bruno, 87, mesothelioma — William, 78, asbestosis — Walter, 80, asbestosis — Jacob, 72, asbestosis — Robert, 69, mesothelioma — Domingo, 72, silicosis — Barry, 67, mesothelioma — Clarence, 78, mesothelioma — Walter, 72, asbestosis — George, 72, cancer — James, 54, mesothelioma — Donald, 71, mesothelioma — Sheldon, 67, mesothelioma — Stanley, 60, mesothelioma — Ronald, 71, mesothelioma — Dan, 72, cancer — Bogdan, 55, motor vehicle accident — Keith, 75, mesothelioma — Ken, 81, mesothelioma — Garry, 76, cancer — Edward, 61, cancer — Terrence, 48, cancer — Wayne, 59, motor vehicle accident — Belle, 89, mesothelioma — Frederick, 69, cancer — Paul, 40, motor vehicle accident — Rex, 65, mesothelioma — John, 87, cancer — Ryan, 29, motor vehicle accident — Mervin, 36, trauma — Gary, 35, motor vehicle accident — Romeo, 79, mesothelioma — John, 80, asbestosis — Dellis, 60, motor vehicle accident — James, 48, motor vehicle accident — James, 56, motor vehicle accident — Stanley, 65, heart disease — Medardo, 73, mesothelioma — Gerald, 63, trauma — Jordan, 21, motor vehicle accident — Arnold, 55, cancer — Zlatko, 79, cancer — Gerald, 79, trauma — Louis, 83, mesothelioma — Edward, 77, cancer — John, 70, mesothelioma — Abe, 29, motor vehicle accident — Stephen, 35, trauma — Fredrick, 55, trauma — David, 70, mesothelioma — Robert, 48, trauma — Kenneth, 86, motor vehicle accident — Bobby, 38, motor vehicle accident — Albert, 58, heart disease — Ian, 60, cancer — William, 38, air crash — Maryam, 35, trauma — Daniel, 35, trauma — Christopher, 31, motor vehicle accident — Dale, 65, motor vehicle accident — Nabeel, 33, air crash — Francois, 62, cancer — Hally, 50, trauma — David, 37, trauma — Donald, 80, trauma — Regan, 29, motor vehicle accident — John, 74, mesothelioma — Peter, 51, trauma — Kevin, 54, motor vehicle accident — Walter, 74, mesothelioma — Gary, 68, trauma — Fuad, 33, trauma — Stephen, 55, air crash — Wesley, 65, trauma — Manmeet, 35, trauma — Dean, 23, trauma — Walter, 55, trauma — Keith, 49, trauma — Edward, 59, trauma — Karanpal, 35, trauma — Ricky, 41, trauma — Marc, 44, trauma

I think Jared's speech as pretty moving and on point. Several times during the reading of the list of the fallen, Jessica turned to me and said "s/he was so young" or that's a "lot of dead workers". It is a bit of a shame that schools don't acknowledge fallen workers as part of their curriculum.

-- Bob Barnetson

Labour & Pop Culture: Hard Working Man

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Hard Working Hands” by Dave Gunning and Ron Hynes. The song is about the end of a working life, written from the perspective of shipbuilders who are mourning the loss of their identities now that they don’t work anymore.
We built those boats down at the shipyard for 40 years or more
Took a break for the time we served in the war
Another evening at the legion with the TV's evening news
Lookin' back is all we ever do
Retirement is often associated with various psychological effects, such as identity disruption and a search for meaningful engagement with society as well as a way to fill the days. Essentially, retirement can mean the loss of an important (and often long-term) source of identity for some workers. Some workers may attempt to reframe their identity, drawing upon personal characteristics that endure and were associated with their former jobs. For example:
An endless wire, that runs through these days
Deepens the lines that run across my face
But if you want to know the kind of man I am
Take a look at these hard workin' hands
In this way, this song is about a process (albeit not necessarily a successful or completed one) of workers making peace with end of their working lives.



We built those boats down at the shipyard for 40 years or more
We only laid our hammers down when left for the war
Now these days I watch the night fall across a tired floor
Far too old for working anymore

Wake the same hour every morning to join the morning crew
We line up at the coffee shop to get the morning news
We still wear the same clothes, wear the same old shoes
Lookin' back is all we ever do

An endless wire, that runs through these days
Deepens the lines that run across my face
But if you want to know the kind of man I am
Take a look at these hard workin' hands

There's a map that has hardened in my skin
Everywhere I go I take every place I've been
The lifeline is a highway through the towns of memories
Every scar has a story

An endless wire, that runs through these days
Deepens the lines that run down my face
But if you want to know the kind of man I am
Take a look at these hard workin' hands

We built those boats down at the shipyard for 40 years or more
Took a break for the time we served in the war
Another evening at the legion with the TV's evening news
Lookin' back is all we ever do

An endless wire, that runs through these days
Deepens the lines that run through my face
But if you want to know the kind of man I am
Take a look at these hard workin' hands
Take a look at these hard workin' hands

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Buried and Forgotten: Newspaper coverage of workplace injury

Today is the National Day of Mourning for workers who have been killed and injured on the job. There are events in both Calgary and Edmonton. As it happens, two more Alberta workers were killed yesterday.

To coincide with the Day of Mourning, the Parkland Institute has issued a report that I co-authored with my colleague Jason Foster entitled “Buried and Forgotten: Newspaper coverage of workplace injury and death in Alberta.”

The report notes that newspaper coverage of workplace injuries and fatalities is skewed in a number of way. Women’s injuries are almost never reported. Most newspaper reports are about fatalities, which represent only a small fraction of overall injuries.

The report also identifies three media frames (or story templates) that almost all newspaper reports of injury fit into: the injury is under investigation, is a human tragedy, or is before the courts. These templates create a meta-narrative, wherein injuries are isolated events that happen to “others,” and for which no one is responsible (except maybe the worker). This, in turn, suggests that the public need not be concerned about workplace safety.

Both the quantitative and qualitative analysis set out in the report are validated in the coverage of yesterday’s fatalities. The events are fatalities that happened to men and that are under investigation

What this report tells us is that, to the degree that we rely upon media reports to help shape our views of occupational injury, our views are likely skewed. This isn’t meant to be a condemnation of reporter—they are workers who face structural pressures to report certain news items in certain ways.

Instead, it suggests that there is a greater role for government in making workers aware of the extent and nature of workplace injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Regional differences in EI benefits

Canadians workers who become unemployed through no fault of their own are usually eligible for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits of up to $537 per week. This is calculated based on 55% of your average insurable earnings (which are capped $50,800 per year).

In order to qualify for EI benefits, you need to have worked work a minimum number of hours in the last 52 weeks. This number of hours varies based upon the unemployment rate in your region. Your economic region (there are 62) also determines the number of weeks you can receive EI benefits.

Basically the higher the unemployment rate is, the easier it is to qualify and the longer benefits last. This results in variable access based upon place to residence. For example, when I wrote this post, the EI region chart (linked above) showed:
  • unemployment in Calgary and southern Alberta was 8.6% and workers there needed 595 hours of employment to qualify and could receive up to 42 weeks of benefits.
  • unemployment in Edmonton was 6.9% and workers there needed 665 hours to quality and could receive up to 38 weeks of benefits.
  • unemployment in northern Alberta was 12.3% and workers there needed 455 hours to qualify and could receive up to 45 weeks of benefits.
EI is a federally operated program and, back in March, the feds announced they would extend benefit durations by 5 weeks (to a maximum of 50 weeks) in some regions along with other changes.  Workers in Edmonton were excluded from extended benefits because the rise in Edmonton’s unemployment rate was too slow.

A secondary issue is that unemployment is calculated based upon a worker’s place of residence, rather than location of work. So, a worker who loses her job in Fort McMurray but lives in Edmonton would be out of luck (versus a worker who lived in Fort McMurray). This led to some criticism of the regional system as well as a smaller number of calls for the abolishment of regional differences in EI eligibility and duration (a recurring theme in EI criticism).

The logic of regional differences is fairly compelling: in some regions of the country, it is harder to get and keep a job. Consequently, EI should be easier to qualify for and last longer in these economically depressed regions because an individual’s employment experiences reflect structural factors in the economy. The Prime Minister defended different regional access to enhanced benefits:
“I think that both people in Edmonton and Saskatchewan should be pleased that they are not hit as hard as other parts of the country and indeed the province have been,” Trudeau said in the Global Calgary interview… .
While this quote has been spun as a heartless dismissal in some media reports, the principles (i.e., data-driven decisions; regional equity) seem like good principles upon which to base this system of income support. An alternate approach might be a national guaranteed income for everyone.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 22, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Fancy

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Fancy” by Reba McEntire. Originally written in 1969, the song is sung from the perspective of a poor teen whose dying mother sends her out to be a sex worker. The video filmed by McEntire has the singer as a famous singer and actress who (perhaps) left of her own accord.

The crux of the song is that grinding poverty gives you no options. Fancy turns 18 and perhaps get cut off whatever state support she was receiving. Her options, outside of sex-work, are pretty limited—particularly given her mother’s illness and her young sibling (who is eventually taken into care).
Now in this world there's a lot of self-righteous hypocrites
That would call me bad
They criticize Mama for turning me out
No matter how little we had
But though I ain't had to worry 'bout nothin' for nigh on fifteen years
Well, I can still hear the desperation in my poor Mama's voice ringin' in my ears
Perhaps the most redemptive part of the song is Fancy's determination to do what is necessary for her  to survive and ignore the public scorn that this attracts. 



I remember it all very well lookin' back
It was the summer I turned eighteen
We lived in a one room, rundown shack
On the outskirts of New Orleans
We didn't have money for food or rent
To say the least we were hard pressed
Then Mama spent every last penny we had
To buy me a dancin' dress

Mama washed and combed and curled my hair
And she painted my eyes and lips
Then I stepped into a satin' dancin' dress
That had a split on the side clean up to my hip
It was red velvet trim and it fit me good
Standin' back from the lookin' glass
There stood a woman where a half grown kid had stood

She said, "Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down.
Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down

Mama dabbled a little bit of perfume on my neck and then she kissed my cheek
And then I saw the tears wellin' up in her troubled eyes as she started to speak
She looked at a pitiful shack
And then she looked at me and took a ragged breath
She said, "Your Pa's runned off and I'm real sick,
And the baby's gonna starve to death."

She handed me a heart shaped locket that said,
"To thine own self be true."
And I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across
The toe of my high heeled shoe
It sounded like somebody else that was talkin'
Askin', "Mama, what do I do?"
She said, "Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy,
And they'll be nice to you."

She said, "Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down.
Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down."
Lord, forgive me for what I do,
But if you want out, well, it's up to you
Now don't let me down
Now your mama's gonna move you uptown

Well, that was the last time I saw my Ma
The night I left that rickety shack
The welfare people came and took the baby
Mama died and I ain't been back

But the wheels of fate had started to turn
And for me there was no way out
And it wasn't very long 'til I knew exactly
What my Mama'd been talkin' about

I knew what I had to do and I made myself this solemn vow
That I's gonna be a lady someday
Though I didn't know when or how
But I couldn't see spending the rest of my life
With my head hung down in shame
You know I might have been born just plain white trash
But Fancy was my name

She said, "Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down.
She said, "Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down.

It wasn't long after that benevolent man took me off the street
And one week later I was pourin' his tea in a five room hotel suite
I charmed a king, a congressman and an occasional aristocrat
And then I got me a Georgia mansion and an elegant New York townhouse flat
And I ain't done bad

Now in this world there's a lot of self-righteous hypocrites
That would call me bad
They criticize Mama for turning me out
No matter how little we had

But though I ain't had to worry 'bout nothin' for nigh on fifteen years
Well, I can still hear the desperation in my poor Mama's voice ringin' in my ears

"Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down.
Here's your one chance, Fancy, don't let me down."
Lord, forgive me for what I do
But if you want out well it's up to you
Now don't let me down
Now your Mama's gonna move you uptown

Well, I guess she did

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

CTV blames workers... for non-existent problem!

Earlier this week, CTV News ran this story about sick time among managers at Alberta Health Services (AHS). The basic narrative is that “workers are lazy” and are bilking the system by taking too many sick days. As the “reporter” opens the story, he says:
It’s a job perk that many would love: months off without pay. But for Alberta Health Service managers, that’s not vacation. That’s sick pay.
The establishing shot pans across an empty room. Putting this image together with the narration and a headline about "squandering sick days" suggests AHS is some kind of ghost ship due to sick leave abuse. Which, if you have ever been to an AHS site, is clearly untrue. This pejorative framing continues throughout the story, “bolstered” by embarrassingly terrible analysis by the reporter.

There are about 8000 managers in the AHS system (including unit managers, patient care managers, metal health clinic managers, food service supervisors). CTV found “hundreds and hundreds” of managers taking more than three weeks of sick time and “more than 50” took the full 16 weeks of leave.

Is that really awful?

It is hard to say. Let’s assume that “hundreds and hundreds” of managers means about 500 (a guess—if it was higher, the reporter likely would have said “nearly 1000”). In other words, about 6% (give or take) of managers took more than three weeks of sick leave and 0.6% took the full 16 weeks of leave.

There was no real information about whether these leaves were legitimate or not, but the tenor of the story suggests there is some sort of scandal involved (we’re promised in the set-up that we’ll be “shocked” and the headline proclaims sick leave is being "squandered").

And there is also no comparative data provided (except an interview with an electrician, whose knowledge of sick leave in AHS is basically zero) about whether AHS managers take more or less sick time than workers anywhere else.

I’m not normally prone to defending managers, but this story is basically a drive-by smearing. There is no evidence whatsoever that sick leaves among AHS managers are being abused.

Indeed, the evidence is just the opposite: an employer attendance management program resulted in only a 1% reduction in sick leave. This suggests that the small fraction of AHS managers with more than three weeks of sick leave are legitimately sick.

This isn’t surprising: most managers will be older and, with age, comes higher rates of illness (and possibly injury). But CTV didn’t let facts get in the way of attacking workers.

Update: So, apparently, when you look at meaningful data, there isn't actually any problem here:
[Alberta Health Minister Sarah] Hoffman says, on average, non-union employees at AHS report 6.5 sick days a year, and that number is on par or below rates in other western provinces, and lower than the national average for non-union employees.
I wonder if CTV will retract its baseless claims now?

-- Bob Barnetson