An Ontario Progressive Conservative politician is continuing to press the ruling minority Liberals to allow private insurance firms to compete with the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) in providing coverage for workers in case they are injured.
Last Thursday, PC labour critic Randy Hillier asked Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi to explain to construction contractors in the visitors' observation gallery why they should be required to pay for WSIB coverage, which Hillier contends is "inferior" and "redundant" to private insurance.
As of Jan. 1, the Ontario government made WSIB coverage mandatory for independent operators in the construction industry, meaning that it is now collecting premiums for sole proprietors, partners in partnerships and executive officers in corporations.
"Your government has used Bill 119 to force contractors to pay for mandatory WSIB premiums," Hillier said last Thursday in the legislature, referring to the law that widened WSIB coverage. "These contractors already pay for private insurance because it covers them 24/7, because if they slip or fall at work or at home, their livelihood depends on their ability to work. Now they're being forced to pay WSIB premiums, insurance that costs six to seven times more than their existing private insurance that they will continue to need."
According to Canadian Contractor magazine, several contractors protested Thursday at Queen's Park.
"For many of the contractors gathered, the bill was adding $6,000 to $10,000 to their insurance bill even though they carried perfectly good private insurance costing less than 1/4 of the mandated insurance of the WSIB," according to Canadian Contractor.
In a white paper published last June, the PC party called for the government to allow private insurance firms to compete for providing insurance coverage for workers in Ontario. WSIB administers no-fault workplace insurance, providing disability benefits.
In reply to Hillier's question, Naqvi argued Thursday there are "very significant differences" between coverage under WSIB and through private carriers.
"Coverage not only deals with an injured worker at the time of their injury but also provides benefits to assist them in their post-injury state," Naqvi said, adding it protects employers from lawsuits.
"WSIB pays up to 85% net wage loss," Naqvi continued. "Benefits include loss of retirement income paid to injured workers from age 65, a special allowance for severely impaired workers, including independent living allowances and, most importantly, work reintegration and retraining services, if needed. These are important differences between private insurance and WSIB."
In its white paper, dubbed Paths to Prosperity: Flexible Labour Markets, the PC party said one of the reasons it wants to open up workplace injury coverage to the private sector is the unfunded WSIB liability, which is the difference between the money required by WSIB to pay the benefits it owes to workers and the money that is actually in the fund. As of the end of 2011 the unfunded liability was $14.2 billion.
"Allowing private insurers into the market would provide employers with choices, not just as to which company, but on the specific details of coverage," the PC party said in its white paper. "Mandatory coverage at equal or better terms would still be in place, and an employer would be required to present proof of membership in an alternate plan before they would be allowed to opt out of the WSIB."
Hillier, a former electrician, is MPP for the eastern Ontario riding of Lanark-Frontenac Lennox and Addington, north of Kingston and southwest of Ottawa. During Question Period Feb. 28, he talked about a 25-year old Hamilton contractor, named Justin, who was in the visitors' gallery, and, Hillier said, is forced to pay $5,000 a year in WSIB premiums.
The new rules that took effect Jan. 1 make WSIB coverage mandatory for independent operators in construction, though individuals doing exclusively home renovation work are exempt, as are those who work directly for the occupant or member of their family. Construction corporations and partnerships either with workers or multiple executive officers can get one person exempted from coverage, provided that person does not perform any construction work.