A group of construction employers is fighting mandatory Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) coverage, calling it a cash grab.
“Everybody knows that they’ve got big, big debt and we are paying for that. Do something else, don’t take the money from our pockets,” said Juliette Forgues, who organized a meeting against Bill 119 in Casselman, Ont. on Jan. 22.
The meeting attracted about 300 construction workers from around the region who oppose Bill 119, which came into effect on Jan. 1. The new law requires independent operators, sole proprietors, some partners in a partnership and some executive officers who work in the Ontario construction industry to have WSIB coverage.
Labour minister Linda Jeffrey said Bill 119 and the WSIB’s estimated $14 billion unfunded liability are two separate issues.
“They’re absolutely not connected,” she said in an interview with the Daily Commercial News.
“This is about making sure we protect Ontario workers and businesses. We’ve been talking about it since 2008 so it wasn’t overnight and we gave people a year to get used to the idea.”
She pointed to the Ministry of Labour’s (MOL) plan to reduce the unfunded liability and become self-funded by 2027. Jeffrey said mandatory coverage will put everyone working in construction on the same page.
“At the end of the day it helps if you have an integrated system where everybody plays by the same rules and I think that’s been the challenge. It’s a sophisticated prevention program services that the WSIB offers and at the end of the day they offer a better service that a private system wouldn’t cover. There’s significant other safety nets that are provided through the WSIB that wouldn’t be offered through a private system.”
She said mandatory coverage will help fight the underground economy.
“What we’re trying to do is prevent the underground economy which is prevalent and it’s certainly taking a bite out of regular business operators.”
Forgues, a controller at Les Fondations Brisson Inc., does not want to reverse the law, but change it.
“There is one good point — the sub-contractor has to be registered with the WSIB, that’s a good point, but to have the mandatory coverage, we don’t want that, nobody wants that.”
The bill received Royal Assent in 2008 and the WSIB conducted an education campaign and voluntary registration in 2012. This year has been highlighted as an education year and penalties will come into effect in 2014.
As premium rates are higher once there is a claim, Forgues says “no independent operator or partners or executive officers will make a claim to the WSIB that will affect their own company. The WSIB won’t pay anything to those contractors.”
The law does not apply to those who solely work in home renovation. There is also an exemption for one executive officer or partner in: corporations and partnerships with workers; corporations without workers but with multiple executive officers; and partnerships without workers. The employer may select one executive officer or partner to apply for an exemption. To qualify, the individual must not perform any construction work, though periodic site visits are permitted. Only one person per employer can be exempt.
“People need to understand that the system and the legislation has passed and there may be some bumps along the way as people get used to the system but at the end of the day, the underground economy hurts all businesses and it hurts workers,” said Jeffrey.
Progressive Conservative MPP for Lenark-Frontenac-Lennox-Addington and Liberal MPP for Glengarry-Prescott-Russell Grant Crack spoke at the meeting. No one representing the WSIB attended the meeting, though Forgues hopes to meet with someone soon.
In an email to the Daily Commercial News, the WSIB said it will work with Forgues and her cohorts.
“It is now our job to administer mandatory coverage and ensure that everyone understands their obligations under the law.
“To ensure the message reaches everyone in the construction industry, we ran a public awareness campaign throughout 2012 and are continuing with outreach efforts throughout 2013. A very important part of our outreach is to conduct information sessions for stakeholders across the province. While we were unable to attend the meeting held by the group [on Jan. 22], we have reached out to them to get a clear sense of their needs and to make arrangements to provide the information they require,” said WSIB media relations specialist Christine Arnott.
Forgues said “something” will happen against Bill 119 on Feb. 12, though she would not say what.
“We were 300 but the next time we will be 3,000,” she said.
Forgues is looking to gain support for the movement from across the province.
Follow Kelly Lapointe on Twitter @DCNKelly.