Employers are feeling the impacts of a diminished labour force and economic fallout from the Omicron COVID-19 variant, and an unprecedented wave of new claims has been hitting the Workers’ Compensation Boards (WCBs). Qualifying a COVID-19 claim as work-related previously required a positive PCR test, which are now in limited supply. Employers have responded by using rapid tests, though reliability of some of these tests may be questionable. Concurrent with the rise of Omicron-related absences is rising claims volumes for WCBs to adjudicate.
In the wake of this perfect storm, the boards pended claims so they could devise a new approach to adjudication, while pressure mounted from employers and employees. By late January the WCBs changed their approach to allow the use of rapid tests as part of the decision-making tree in determining entitlement. The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) will also consider a medical opinion for a confirmed diagnosis, in the absence of a positive test. The WSIB reports that pending claims exceeded 5,000 as of January 21, 2022.
The speed of Omicron’s spread has caused unforeseen absences and created a strain on the remaining labour force. There has been a noticeable rise in physical injury claims and mental health claims, impacting both employers’ abilities to deliver their goods and services, and the healthcare system in treating those impacted. While plans to reintegrate back to the workplace continue to be deliberated, staff frustration and mounting retention issues could delay these plans again.
The Omicron variant makes one thing quite clear: This pandemic is not going away tomorrow. Employers can encourage vaccinations; stress social distancing and mask-wearing; support work from home; and encourage employees to ask for help managing increased stress and anxiety related to the pandemic. Nothing new, but prudent – and minor – steps that can be taken for the long-term health of employees and their organization.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the WCBs removed the claims costs from an employer’s experience rating record, eliminating the potential of increased premium rates (except for Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, likely due to their reduced exposure of claims). Employers still are not responsible for claim costs, but the financial consequences of the pandemic are real and must be absorbed somehow. Time will tell how the system will absorb the costs.
If you’re looking for assistance managing claims or to optimize your absence management strategy, ReedGroup has the solutions for you. Check out our offerings here.
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.