Alberta farm worker WCB claims more than double since Bill 6

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WATCH ABOVE: Alberta farm worker claims to the Workers' Compensation Board have more than doubled so far in 2016. This is the first year the workers' compensation coverage is mandatory for the industry. Tom Vernon breaks down the numbers – Aug 2, 2016

The number of claims made by Alberta farm workers to the Workers’ Compensation Board have more than doubled since the province’s farm safety legislation – Bill 6 – was put into place.

READ MORE: Notley posts open letter on Facebook to address farmers’ Bill 6 worries

Between Jan. 1 and July 2, 2016, a total of 395 claims were filed. According to the WCB, 356 of those were accepted. Compare that to the same period in 2015, when a total of 158 claims were filed and 143 were accepted.

Of the 356 claims accepted in 2016, 147 involved time away from work and two were fatalities.

Click here to read the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (Bill 6).

The president of the Farmworkers Union of Alberta says this shows the legislation is working as designed.

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“Two hundred workers and their families are being protected, 200 employers are also being protected, and their communities and the public purse are being protected,” Eric Musekamp said. “It’s a win-win story.”

Wayne Drysdale, PC MLA and agriculture critic, warns against reading too much into the numbers.

“Just because they’re covered this year doesn’t mean they weren’t covered last year under a private insurance program,” he said.

“I’m not saying all those new claims are people who weren’t covered before. You could jump to that conclusion but I wouldn’t want to do that.”

Drysdale has been told some farmers have lost better forms of insurance coverage because they have to sign up with WCB and aren’t going to pay two sets of premiums.

“There’s lots of them that just haven’t done it yet either,” he added. “I guess eventually they’ll have to, but lots of farmers haven’t applied for WCB even though they were supposed to January 1.”

READ MORE: New poll suggests most Albertans opposed to Bill 6

He stressed – unequivocally – his support and his party’s support for farmers and farm safety.

“We support safety for farmers and anything that makes it better for them,” Drysdale said.

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“We said all along, we just wish that the bill would have said, ‘you have to have insurance coverage equal to or better than WCB but not necessarily WCB,’ because there were private programs that were better.”

Advocates argue Bill 6 will help the province track farm injuries more consistently and accurately. Drysdale says only time will tell.

“We’ll have to see over time how [the numbers] change. I don’t think they say a whole lot yet. Obviously, there’s more farmers joining WCB because they have to. The more farmers join, the more claims there’s going to be. I’ve asked and there’s no way of tracking how many have cancelled private programs and how many claims there were under private claims last year but nobody seems to have that information.”

Bill 6 came into effect Jan. 1, 2016 after vocal opposition and protests. Many critics felt the legislation was an attack on their way of life.

READ MORE: ‘We want safety’ – Farmer combines, tractors line Alberta’s Highway 2 to protest Bill 6 

Under Bill 6, only farm and ranch operations that employ waged, non-family members are required to purchase coverage from the WCB. Coverage is optional for purely family-run farms or those that have neighbours help out in a volunteer capacity.

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According to WCB numbers, the highest number of injury claims so far in 2016 came from workers in feed lots, where 92 injury claims were accepted. In the first six months of 2016, there have been 88 sprains or strains claimed, 76 superficial wounds, 62 open wounds, 43 fractures, dislocations or nerve damage injuries and 87 other injuries.

READ MORE: Amendments to Bill 6 exclude farm owners and their families from new rules 

The WCB said all paid agricultural workers in Alberta are covered as of Jan. 1, regardless of whether their employer has registered for an account yet.

As of Dec. 31, 2015, 1,754 accounts (with approximately 7,600 employees) were registered with the WCB. There have been 1,461 new accounts (with approximately 5,125 employees) registered since Jan. 1, 2016.

A WCB spokesperson said the board has been “pleased with the account registrations to date” and will “continue to work on educating the farming and ranching communities about WCB.”

The province is still working on the regulations in Bill 6.

“Our government is working with farmers and ranchers to build a culture of safety and ensure all waged farm workers have safe workplaces,” Labour Minister Christina Gray said in a statement.

“The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board provides no-fault insurance that protects farmers and ranchers in the event of a lawsuit while providing workers with coverage in the event if an incident. We’re seeing a steady increase in the number of farm and ranch workers accessing supports through WCB as well as more agricultural producers registering for coverage. I’m pleased that we’re making steady progress with WCB registrations and that more workers in this sector are accessing the medical and financial supports they need to get healthy and return to work.”

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With files from Global’s Tom Vernon

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