2021 Light at Tunnel End

It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone, especially for employers navigating this unchartered territory. Employers of all sizes have had to turn their operations, and their program for workers’ compensation, upside down in order to get through these unprecedented times.

Where are we now?

It’s well over a year since the outbreak of COVID-19 turned into a worldwide pandemic. Political, social, and economical debates continue on how to manage this unique set of circumstances.  Workers’ compensation was and is not immune.

Workers’ Compensation Boards across Canada got off to a slow start on the adjudicative principles of COVID-19 claims, and more recently the impact of COVID-19 vaccine-related claims. Employers have been able to pivot and adjust within their sphere of business, yet the Workers’ Compensation Boards left employers waiting and speculating on next steps with little to no guidance. Even today, employers question many Workers’ Compensation Boards’ rationale for accepting the work-relatedness of some claims, due to what appears to be a rush to allow claims.

On the positive side, most Workers’ Compensation Boards across Canada have indicated that employers will not be charged for COVID-19 claims; rather, they will be spread across the industry class or rate group to avoid drastic impacts to future insurance premiums[1]. Costs will also be removed by most WCBs for claims resulting from reactions to COVID-19 vaccinations. The only claims that will not be removed from the employer’s record will be mental health claims related to COVID-19, as the primary diagnosis in those types of claims is not COVID-19. This thoughtful approach by the WCBs to remove COVID- 19 related claim costs is monetarily appropriate; however, there are direct long-term costs to the system and employers.  There continue to be delays in workers seeking treatment and program extensions; thus, benefit payments beyond the “normal” continue, all which will impact insurance premiums.

While the WCBs’ cost removal has been reassuring for employers, it has also resulted in a lack of appeals for claims with varying validity. There is no financial incentive for employers to query or appeal COVID-19 claims, other than for the principle of just being correct.

COVID-19 impacts on employers

All employers have felt the negative impacts of COVID-19 in one form or another. Our ability and processes for managing workers’ compensation claims has had to be adjusted and readjusted over the course of the pandemic. Even outside of the complexity of COVID-19 claims themselves, employers have had to modify their return-to-work programs and their expectations for medical updates from injured employees. Options for accommodations and return-to-work programs cannot be offered as simply as they were before. Employers must now consider factors such as PPE requirements, social distancing, remote work environments, and exposure risk when making an offer of modified work. And, to add to the return-to-work complications, supporting medical documentation is frequently not available at the rate it was before, leaving employers to speculate on employees’ recovery and functional ability.

Out of all industries, it is safe to say that healthcare employers have been among the most affected by the pandemic. COVID-19 has disrupted the natural order of care giving; healthcare employers are now operating in a constant emergency state. The employees in this industry are experiencing the devastating effects of COVID-19 firsthand and are frequently exposing themselves directly to the virus in order to help others, resulting in an uptick in workplace mental health claims. Similar to other essential industries, the only benefit that the healthcare sector has been able to capitalize on is the availability of modified work. The tremendous increase in demand for personnel and the requirements for significant safety protocols to minimize the spread have created roles that are suitable for employees retuning to work with varying functional abilities. Roles such as screening, enhanced cleaning, and PPE distribution have provided additional modified work opportunities and given employers a chance to reduce their lost time costs and duration.

Where are we headed? The light at the end of the tunnel

For over a year, we’ve been living day-to-day as the world around us continued to change. Finally, with vaccinations being rolled out, we have some hope of “normal” in the not-so-distant future. But what is that going to look like?

On the positive side of things, we can expect to see further investment in innovation and digitalization from the Workers’ Compensation Boards. The pandemic has forced the operations and technology of the Workers’ Compensation Boards to be drastically updated in order to allow them to operate remotely. Now that the ball is rolling, we should continue to see investment in enhanced technology and platforms. Secondly, employers will be equipped with the tools to accommodate in a variety of different ways that they were not utilizing previously. Most companies have proven their ability to operate remotely. Even once employees are back in the office, employers can continue to accommodate more restrictions by utilizing work-from-home capabilities and additional roles for enhanced safety measures.

On the negative side of things, we will likely continue to see an uptick in mental health claims. The lingering effects of the pandemic will continue to contribute to increased mental health challenges and the associated workplace claims. Secondly, as employees return to workplaces that have been shut down, employers will likely experience a higher volume of workplace injuries. Over the next few months, employers must continue to focus their efforts on providing employees with support mechanisms both for reintegration into the workplace and to reduce the impact of mental health.

COVID-19 has made lasting impacts on all employers and while some of these impacts have been devastating, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Information provided on this blog is intended for general educational use. It is not intended to provide legal advice. ReedGroup does not provide legal services. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this or any other topic.

[1] Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada