NOVA SCOTIA HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEES OFFICE
Department of Labour and Advanced Education
re Benefits for Firefighters
Appointments to Agencies, Boards and Commissions
Printed and Published by Nova Scotia Hansard Reporting Services
STANDING COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RESOURCES
Mr. Bill Horne (Chairman)
Ms. Joyce Treen
Mr. Ben Jessome
Ms. Margaret Miller
Mr. Iain Rankin
Mr. Eddie Orrell
Ms. Karla MacFarlane
Hon. Maureen MacDonald
Hon. Denise Peterson-Rafuse
Ms. Kim Langille
Legislative Committee Clerk
Mr. Gordon Hebb
Chief Legislative Counsel
Ms. Karen Kinley
Department of Labour and Advanced Education
Mr. Duff Montgomerie
Ms. Joy Knight
Acting Director, Policy and Strategic Initiatives Division
HALIFAX, TUESDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2014
STANDING COMMITTEE ON HUMAN RESOURCES
Mr. Bill Horne
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Welcome to the Committee on Human Resources. My name is Bill Horne. I’m the chairman and I represent Waverley-Fall River- Beaver Bank.
I would ask if everybody would introduce themselves.
[The committee members and witnesses introduced themselves.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you for coming today. I’d like to ask everyone to make sure their phones are on silent or vibrate. Washrooms are out to the left, to the right, and there’s a sign there showing you the directions.
Thank you very much for coming. I would like to ask you to introduce yourselves, as you already have, and continue with your presentation.
MR. DUFF MONTGOMERIE: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am Duff Montgomerie, with the Department of Labour and Advanced Education. With me is Joy Knight who is Acting Director of Policy and Strategic Initiatives. Joy plays a key role in her liaison with the Workers’ Compensation Board so she’s much more of a subject expert than I might be in these discussions.
We welcome this opportunity to present to you and your committee in the context of trying to raise awareness around this very challenging issue and we’ll take you through in depth. Feel free to interrupt at any time. I don’t know what your protocol is for questions or so on, but certainly once we’re done, we’re obviously here for as many questions as you want.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We will wait until the end of your presentation to ask appropriate questions.
MR. MONTGOMERIE: So Workers’ Compensation benefits in Nova Scotia - the Workers’ Compensation system is the main benefits provider for injured workers in our province and the board equally represents employers, and employees and workers - and that’s an important distinction. The board is made up that way as well. They’re responsible for raising the concerns and interests of the diverse sectors in workplaces in Nova Scotia and obviously including firefighters. They do provide benefits to firefighters - paid and volunteer - for an employer who ascribes to the WCB. In other words, you have to subscribe to the WCB to get those benefits.
In the case of firefighters, the employer is the municipality. Of course firefighting in our world of government is a core responsibility of municipal governments. Workers’ Compensation also provides a suite of benefits to all the workers that are subscribed and these benefits all apply to firefighters.
Obviously, in order to receive benefits, an injured firefighter must show a connection between their injury and their workplace, but I think the honourable members would be surprised to see the benefits to firefighters, full and the volunteers, who do subscribe to Workers’ Compensation, and they’re quite extensive: the earning replacement benefits, physiotherapy coverage, return-to-work plans, prescription drug coverage, centralized surgical services, travel and expenses for care, and of course survivor and fatal benefits.
Benefits are awarded to a worker on a case-by-case basis. So you file for a claim, your case is adjudicated, and a decision is made. If I remember correctly, claims must be submitted within a year of the incident or injury in order to be considered for compensation. I believe there is a 10-day period where the employer must report those injuries so it gets on the record.
Presumptive cancer benefits and what they are - there is one situation where a firefighter does not have to show a connection between their injury or illness and their workplace. The Act allows an exemption to be made for legislatively identified illnesses or injuries that are presumed to be as a result of their workplace. We have presumptive benefits for firefighters for specific cancers that are common among this working group.
I should point out, as it says on the deck, presumptive benefits in Nova Scotia exist only for firefighters with these specific cancers. Of course, unlike other occupational groups, firefighters cannot refuse to go to work. Of course, in many cases, work is under very trying and dangerous circumstances.
Medical and scientific studies conclusively demonstrate an increased rate of disease such as cancer in the firefighter population versus the general population so there is a proven link to the occupation and these cancers. These studies show a statistically significant increase that cannot be explained by chance alone.
I should mention automatic assumption. Automatic assumption is actually as it sounds. It’s automatically assumed without question that a specifically identified illness or injury is a direct result of the workplace. Here in Nova Scotia, the one place that we do have automatic assumption is for coal miners. If at any point over the course of the life of a coal miner who has worked at the face of a mine or in similar conditions for 20 years or more suffers permanent impairment for loss of lung function, benefits are automatically accrued to that worker, but that’s the only automatic assumption that we have in Nova Scotia.
So the presumptive cancer benefits were first introduced in 2003 under the Firefighters’ Compensation Act. Six cancers are covered and they are listed there. These cancers were chosen as they were the most commonly occurring cancers for firefighters and have been directly linked, through empirical research, to the hazards and risks of the occupation.
As mentioned, proof is not really required under a presumption. However, the employer does have the ability to appeal a Workers’ Compensation Board decision towards a benefit. This rarely happens, and if I understand it, in the presumptive area it hasn’t happened at all where an employer has appealed. So there might be a really rare case, a firefighter has a previous history of dealing with presumption-specific cancer before joining the fire services and in this case a recurrence was not a result of the workplace. But to be clear again, employer disputes of presumptive benefits are extremely rare.
The Act applies to municipal and volunteer firefighters whose employer - and this is key, obviously - subscribes to Workers’ Compensation benefits. In my understanding, for the volunteer side of the firefighters, it costs approximately $60 a firefighter for municipalities to subscribe, which enables firefighters to have access to these benefits.
The WCB had 60 approved claims since mid-2003, when the first was filed. That’s approximately six per year. HRM, for example, just as sort of a sidebar, has indicated that their firefighters are covered under private insurance and they have the option whether they want to buy into WCB or whether they want to do private insurance. For example, banks do private insurance. HRM has chosen this route because in their instance, they feel their insurance program gives them better benefits in short-term stuff for the firefighters whereas the Workers’ Compensation Board gives better benefits in the longer term, but to be clear, their insurance does cover off on the presumptive cancer as well. I just want to be sure I’m getting all the key points here.
A private insurance accident policy may expand to fundraising that firefighters do, the Workers’ Compensation benefits do not cover volunteer activities like fundraising and those scenarios, so that is an extra benefit that the HRM full-time firefighters would get by doing the private plan. So HRM still analyzes private coverage versus WCB coverage for firefighters and they do that roughly every two years. That’s them keeping their options open.
The Act does not include federal firefighters who do receive all other WCB benefits and this is consistent with other provinces. Think of it this way, that the Government of Canada contracts with WCB here in Nova Scotia to provide benefits to their members so many times the firefighters themselves will lobby us, as the provincial government, to extend those benefits to them, the presumptive benefits and we simply say you should ask your federal government to include them in the contact with WCB. In essence, federal firefighters are a federal responsibility.
A firefighter must have been active over the span of a number of years in order to qualify for presumption. The qualifying range is from five to 20 years. Now I had the privilege of being on the health file for a number of years and I have a bit of an understanding of the kind of research and evidence that goes into insurance people arriving at how you determine these different kinds of scenarios and you can see the different minimum of service years associated with each cancer. Obviously that’s based on science and evidence, which makes it - not easier - but it gives a good base for how the Workers’ Compensation Board deals with each case.
While the majority of claims are made by the employer, presumptive claims are the exception and are made by the worker. There is a special claim form available on the Workers’ Compensation Board website for firefighters to use. Again, it’s the awareness thing that we keep talking about because these benefits are really quite good, particularly in Atlantic Canada, compared to the other Atlantic Provinces. It’s consistent with other jurisdictions for these particular cancers.
Volunteer firefighters must have participated in 20 per cent of all activities of the fire department each year in order to qualify. As I understand it, what Workers’ Compensation does is they touch base with the fire department on individual claims just to ensure that the person filing the claim was a true member of the department and participated in roughly 20 per cent of those activities.
Benefits for cancers not covered under presumption would be available to a firefighter if they can show a connection between their illness and their workplace. All of the jurisdictions - with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I., which do not offer presumptive benefits at all - offer presumptive benefits also for illness within 24 hours of acting in a fire service. Nova Scotia does not provide that benefit, just to let you know that.
In the Fall of 2012, the Throne Speech of the government of the day committed to expanding presumptive cancer benefits for firefighters, but after reflection and careful research and analysis and some interaction with the Workers’ Compensation Board and so on, it was decided not to proceed. Employer and worker representatives have agreed that benefits and rates should remain stable until the unfunded liability of the board is looked after. Let me take a minute or two to sort of go down that road, if I could.
Many years ago, governments sort of interfered in the working of the Workers’ Compensation Board and rates were kept artificially low. In some cases, benefits that should have been happening didn’t happen. A Supreme Court case and injured workers and so on changed that dynamic and the board has been absolutely religious in the last decade to get that liability reduced because we have the second highest - and I’m being told by my team, close to the highest rates in Canada and it’s because of that unfunded liability.
What the workers and the employers have agreed to, grudgingly - they don’t like it, they pay high rates - they’ve agreed that we need to get that liability down so we can finally get back to lower rates and better flexibility in what we’re able to do, and full marks - for the last 10 years, respective governments have been very careful not to impose different scenarios on the Workers’ Compensation Board that would impact that liability. This is a case where after careful thought it was determined not to move forward on expanding benefits that are available.
It is a tough discussion. Again, having been in the Health file, there are people all the time that you want to help or in different settings in different places. It’s really incumbent particularly on public servants to give the best advice and background we can to our elected representatives, because at the end of the day they have to make the tough calls and they are the ones who have to face the people around those calls. It’s not easy and this is a prime example of difficult decisions that were made.
The key for us and what Workers’ Compensation and the employees and the workers at the time collectively said to the government of the day - expanding that list of benefits could have serious unintended consequences around rates and those scenarios. As a matter of fact, in New Brunswick I recall that a decision was made to charge additional premiums to municipalities. There they forced the municipalities to pay. They had to raise those rates in January so that they almost doubled on January 1, 2015. It has caused financial hardship with some of those fire departments in New Brunswick. The government of the day is having a hard look at that issue. That’s a prime example of unintended consequences.
Also, I have to emphasize that I’ve been around government a long time and I was actually on the Workers’ Compensation file 10 years ago - I can’t say enough about the leadership of the Workers’ Compensation Board. Their board, which again is composed of employers and workers, and their staff - they work really hard in a very difficult environment to make sure they’re running a steady ship and trying to keep that liability and get it reduced, but at the same time provide top-notch service - the best service they can to the workers and to the employers.
They obviously have other priorities they’d like to get at, which they’ve articulated to government. So as they move and get that liability changed, there are other things they would like to try to do better.
The key one today - and this was a bit of an eye-opener for me as my team took me through this and why I said in my opening remarks that this is a great opportunity to raise awareness around an incredibly difficult issue that has been emerging over the last decade - is the Psychological Injury Policy, which is the post-traumatic stress scenario. So firefighters can suffer from psychological as well as physical injuries. Through the WCB there are supports and benefits to assist firefighters suffering from psychological injuries.
Leading up to March they took a major review of their existing policy and consulted all the stakeholders - government, many key folks in the health file and world - and revamped their policy. Their diagnoses - again back to the science and the evidence - are based according to the standards of the American Psychiatric Association. What they do in the mental health world is American Psychiatric publishes basically a bible on how you get at and evaluate the different kinds of stressors that would be identified through these policies and which enables an agency like the Workers’ Compensation Board to use that template to make sure workers are being treated fairly.
There are two types: acute onset, and what they added in March was cumulative onset which is huge. This was an area I know that many members have really been advocating for and have been champions for, to ensure that workers - first responders and firefighters - could have access to the cumulative kinds of scenarios. I think as we take you through it, you will see that in fact that has now happened.
Acute onset is an acute response to a traumatic event. So you go to the American profile, that psychiatric profile and it will list traumatic events. Some of them are quite obvious. The ones you hear a lot about are first responders, particularly volunteers who respond to that horrific automobile accident - I can’t imagine the first time that it occurs and so on, it impacts people in different ways.
To go to the second one, cumulative onset: first responders, paramedics, and others who deal with the trauma scenario on a regular basis, and volunteer firefighters and full-time firefighters who might respond as the first responders - arrive at a major event. These are situations where workers experience multiple events that, though traumatic, did not result in an acute reaction right away. However, the accumulation of these events over time may result in a reaction to a final event, causing a psychological injury, even if this event is not the most severe.
The Workers’ Compensation Board started in March. We’re working with them and watching it very closely. They are telling us - basically, if you want to file a claim or come in and register a claim, you get seen right away. There’s not a waiting time so it’s a fairly quick service in that way. They then begin the process of assessing the claim, again using the standards that I explained to you earlier.
There is no maximum number of treatments for a worker. The number would be determined based on the needs of each worker. If a worker requires a return-to-work plan, this would be developed based on their specific needs and in consultation with the employer. They had Morneau Shepell do kind of a cost impact as they were doing the review of this. Interestingly enough, it has minimal impact on the cost to the Workers’ Compensation Board - I think it’s approximately 0.2 cents per $100 of payroll, so less than a 1 per cent change.
This is a good example of where the Workers’ Compensation Board can be nimble and respond to an emerging, very serious and difficult issue and get at it in a very efficient, economical way on the one side, while at the same time providing much better service, particularly around the cumulative onset to workers who find themselves in difficulty than before.
Again, the theme you’ll hear from me a little bit is, we really encourage municipalities - for $60 a firefighter - we really encourage them to find ways to make sure they’re covered. Kings County recently, in September, showed amazing leadership - $25,000, which gets them 400 volunteer firefighters covered in 13 different departments. So all the benefits I raised with you earlier plus this particular benefit, they now have access to. Thank you.
Are there any questions?
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you for your presentation. I’ll ask the committee to ask questions. Mr. Orrell.
MR. EDDIE ORRELL: Thank you for your presentation. The first question I want to ask is, the benefit rates for the firefighters - is it $60 per year?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: For volunteer firefighters and for full-time, Joy?
MS. JOY KNIGHT: It’s $1.88 per $100 for full-time firefighters.
MR. ORRELL: But it’s only 60 cents for a volunteer.
MS. KNIGHT: Yes, 59 cents, exactly.
MR. ORRELL: That’s good. I guess I’m going to ask the biggest question that has been burning in everybody’s mind. In Laurel Broten’s tax review, they recommend that they eliminate tax credits and tax incentives for volunteer firefighters. Since that review has been out, I’ve heard from thousands, because every time I go anywhere, that’s what I hear. Is it something that is going to be on the table or is it something we’ll be able to take out of that review? Volunteer fire departments are now having a really difficult time recruiting people, especially with the economic situation where people from my area are working in Alberta so they’re losing their volunteers that way - to lose them because of a feeling that they’re not valued for a $500 tax credit. Is that something that we can call on the government to keep out of this tax review and maybe try to keep it there?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: Thank you for the question. It’s a bit out of my pay grade to a certain extent. Suffice to say that the Premier has made it clear that the Broten report is a report for discussion and interaction and to have a hard look at all the areas that are in it. Obviously Minister Regan, myself, and my team have heard the very same things that you’ve heard.
MR. ORRELL: How many volunteer firefighters in the province compared to how many actual professional career firefighters in our province? Is that something you know offhand - or approximate?
MS. KNIGHT: There are 7,000 firefighters - 6,300 are volunteer and 700 are career.
MR. ORRELL: I guess just another quick last question, if I may. Of those career firefighters, how much approximately do they make compared to what it would cost for the tax on a volunteer firefighter - the rebate? Is that something that would be . . .
MS. KNIGHT: Sorry, could you repeat the question?
MR. ORRELL: If we were to eliminate the tax credit and all the volunteer firefighters left their departments and they had to employ professional firefighters, what would the cost be? I would think it would be astronomical compared to what they have now and the ability they have now. I’m just wondering if that’s something that is known.
MR. MONTGOMERIE: I’m not sure of the connection to the question, but obviously if suddenly you’re looking at full-time firefighters across Nova Scotia, it’s huge. It just wouldn’t happen, quite frankly. I’m speaking specifically about if all of a sudden you had to have full-time firefighters.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin, would you like to ask questions?
MR. IAIN RANKIN: No, just comments. It’s clear that it’s a consultant report and the tax review is just something that is arm’s length from government and it will be reviewed. There is no indication from government that we’re going to accept that recommendation.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Peterson-Rafuse.
HON. DENISE PETERSON-RAFUSE: I’d like to follow up a little bit. I’ll be focusing on the volunteer firefighters. Coming from a rural constituency, it is a critical service and with the aging population, a lot of our volunteer fire departments are really struggling in terms of their membership and increasing their memberships and the incentives to attract younger individuals to become part of the volunteer firefighters in the community. So with respect to the tax credit, we know there’s a recommendation on the table to cut that; however, the government is saying it’s an arm’s-length report that they commissioned themselves.
Are there any discussions at all? I know you’re talking about now what to do with that, but any thought of even increasing it? Increasing that tax credit would be a great incentive to these volunteer firefighters to stay with the departments and for younger volunteer firefighters to become involved. We need some type of plan or strategy that’s very focused on those volunteer fire departments in the province on their memberships.
I just want to know, has there been any talk whatsoever of increasing it and is there any data presently that you can provide on the results of the present tax credit, in terms of have there been any focus-group discussions with the volunteer firefighters on how that affects their departments? It’s a two-part question.
MR. MONTGOMERIE: Thank you very much. Our responsibility, as public servants, is to examine all sides of a difficult issue, get the best information and evidence behind that issue and then present it to our minister. Of course that’s what we’re doing in this particular situation. As the honourable member mentioned, it’s a draft report. There are countless things in that report but it’s incumbent upon us to look at that report as it impacts our department and look at things and we’re working through that.
It’s always a challenge when you look at a scenario and say, well, what happens if you put more money in there? It’s almost like, what happens if you put more money into the Workers’ Compensation Board and so on? We’re working really hard at making sure that those firefighters get the best benefits that we’re able to give them. So at the present time there has been no discussion at our level to look to expand it.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: What about the second part? Has there been any analysis on the benefit of that tax credit in terms of one-on-one discussion with departments around the province?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: There has not, no.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Any plans to have communication one on one?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: To be honest, we haven’t thought of that right now in all the stuff that’s going on, but if that suddenly becomes more of a real scenario, I’m quite sure that will happen.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Okay, thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Rankin.
MR. RANKIN: A comment again, I don’t think it does anyone any good to presuppose what government will do. Committees are structured to analyze what is happening in government. I don’t know why you wouldn’t be asking questions on the WCB, other than selectively looking at a report and trying to pick these things that are perhaps less palatable to the public and try to attack them, it’s not even on the table yet.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Do you have one more question?
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Yes, it’s very similar to - it’s about the volunteer firefighters again and the issues with respect to encouraging more people to be involved. Without a plan for the volunteer firefighter base in rural Nova Scotia, we’re in crisis. I have a fire department that has been recently closed, in Black Point. What you’re looking at are areas where people feel they may be unserved. I know I spend a lot of time, I can tell you, with volunteer firefighters, speaking to them and getting a sense of the stress and challenges they face as volunteers. Some of them have been there, believe it or not - I went to an award just this Saturday night, 50 years, they are getting pretty tired.
One of the things they brought to my attention is the cost out of their pockets to be a volunteer firefighter. It’s not a free thing. Although the tax credit is a benefit to them, they have to pay for any gas they are using, in terms of going for training. Training is very costly for the departments. I’ve asked them, what’s the one thing you would like to see government do to support you? They continually say, training - more dollars to support us for training because when they’re being trained, they’re taking their own free volunteer time and it’s hours and hours. It’s not like a two-hour course. It’s a continuum of courses they have to take and it’s very costly out-of-pocket. So that certainly doesn’t encourage those who are there to stay and it doesn’t encourage those that we need to get involved to get involved because those costs are much higher with the more restrictions and safety that are put on in our society than maybe those firefighters had to have training 30 years ago.
I’m wondering once again - I guess it’s bringing me back to the question of what types of strategies - are you putting together any kind of strategies and plans within the department to focus on these issues - going out and talking to firefighters, developing a plan solely around volunteer firefighters and the loss of those firefighters in our rural communities?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: Thank you for the question. I grew up in a rural community, I taught in a rural community, and I’m very much aware of the pride that volunteer firefighters have and what they do for their community and the time and effort. I’ve watched from afar as the demographics in rural Nova Scotia, as we all know, have caused incredibly strong challenges. Again, the admiration I have for those volunteer firefighters and the leadership they provide in their communities is extraordinary.
One thing the committee may not be aware of is there is actually a committee of deputy ministers and firefighting folks that meet on a regular basis. It’s chaired by the Department of Municipal Affairs because obviously it’s a core service. I happened to be on that when I was with the Department of Natural Resources because I had a fire department - I didn’t realize I had 26 fire trucks and so on. The kinds of things that you raise are talked about at that area and we work really hard. I know DNR does a lot of things where they try to help with the volunteer fire departments in training. We service pumps; we do different scenarios. Those discussions happen on a regular basis.
I haven’t been at that table in this portfolio, but it might be interesting for the group, if you’re interested, to have the Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs come and talk about some of those things because they’re very cognizant of those challenges.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Miller.
MS. MARGARET MILLER: I’d like to get back on topic again. The Workers’ Compensation Board when we were farming was the enemy.
MR. MONTGOMERIE: It was the enemy to a lot of people, I know.
MS. MILLER: We farmed for 25 years and our rates always seemed astronomically high, so when I’m looking at $1.88 per $100 of assessed value - I think we were paying at the time, and this was probably 20 years ago, $3.70 or something like that, it was quite high.
So I’m looking at these numbers and I’m looking at the underfunded liability of $550 million. How did it get to that point of being underfunded by that much money? Was it by adding things to what you were paying out? Is it something that was inherited from the government slowly or was there a big bang somewhere that all of a sudden you have $300 million underfunded liability?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: I think a good reference point for the honourable member might be the Dorsey report. I think that was a decade ago or more. That’s when I first became acquainted with the file. I was asked to look at that report and started meeting with Workers’ Compensation Board folks as to how they get at that. If I can, that report helped leverage people - like I think the chairman at the time was Louis Comeau and others - to say to government, here is a prime reason you need to allow us to manage this fund in a business-like way because every time government does something that says - do benefits here or do something over here, that liability grows; allow us to make evidence-based decisions.
In fairness to that board, because after 10 years it was déjà vu all over again when I met with them when I first came to the Department of Labour and Advanced Education, and I’ve got to tell you, I was blown away with how effective they are. Their board members go through a very rigorous governance counselling scenario so they learn very early on. They have an incredible responsibility and they represent on one hand labour, and they represent on the other hand the employer. So there is a divergence of views, yet when they come together they work really hard to find consensus around these difficult issues.
I don’t know if I’m giving you the direct answer, but I think the best answer is that three successive governments in the last decade have taken real good care not to upset the apple cart and do something that would cause them to lose the focus on diminishing that unfunded liability.
MS. MILLER: Do you find that is still the recommendation, that we should proceed as is for however many years it takes to get rid of that underfunded liability?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: There’s always a caveat, and I think post-traumatic stress is a good example of something that may occur that again, based on science and evidence that workers are being put at risk in an unreasonable way or not being treated fairly, that you need to revisit that. That’s the one caveat I would add. Other than that, when I meet with the union leaders and when I meet with the employers, they growl about the rates but they say don’t you dare interfere, we’ve got to get that liability down so we can get our rates down.
MS. MILLER: The Psychological Injury Policy - do you find that most of everything that’s in this basically is going to be addressing the problem that we have with PTSD? I mean obviously PTSD isn’t new, whatever term has been used over the years; maybe it’s a little bit more prevalent now and people are recognizing it more now. Is this being covered under the Psychological Injury Policy?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: I think time will tell, in the context of the new policy and how it’s unfolding. I think what we should all take comfort in is that the basis they use is the American Psychiatric - that template. That’s a science-based, evidence-based template that most major insurers will use when evaluating how you - I won’t say award benefits, but make sure benefits accrue to a worker who is filing a claim.
There’s always room for improvement and so on, but I think they’re on a very good track right now. Again, they advised us they’re able to deal with claims fairly quickly.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Jessome.
MR. BEN JESSOME: A quick question - firefighting is not considered a mandatory industry with the Workers’ Compensation Board. Why is that?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: Joy will help me if I don’t get this right, but to participate in Workers’ Compensation is optional for employers. Like HRM has decided to go with a private insurer; some departments aren’t going with anybody, which is a concern. So you have a choice as an employer what you may want to do. Have I got that right?
MS. KNIGHT: Yes, just to clarify, that’s employers - municipalities for firefighters. There are lots of mandatory industries in Nova Scotia, this just happens to be one that’s not mandatory, like banking or farming. Police services are also mandatory.
MR. JESSOME: And that has to do with the fact that they’ve chosen to go elsewhere for benefits, or I guess from my perspective, I would group them with the police service, or something like that, as a mandatory service. I’m just curious about why they fall on the outside.
MS. KNIGHT: Traditionally the fire services have approached government asking for it not to be mandatory, so that request has come through just like other non-mandatory industries and other requests, because they like that flexibility to either go with private - which tends to benefit them better for the benefits they’re looking for. So they’ve asked for that flexibility and so government has allowed that and that’s why it’s not mandatory.
MR. JESSOME: Okay, thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Orrell.
MR. ORRELL: I just want to clarify that the reason I was asking the questions before about the tax credit was not to attack anybody and not to cherry-pick anything from the report, in all due respect to the member opposite over there. I have four very active volunteer fire departments in my area. They are very passionate about what they do. They train hard and they protect our community extremely well. The first person in my door after that tax review was announced was a firefighter, saying that we have a hard enough time now recruiting people - it’s a little benefit they get, it’s a little thank you, it’s not a lot. They don’t get anything else but that and satisfaction in helping the community.
I don’t want anyone to think that we’re attacking that. I just want to be on the record as saying please, if we have any say, if you guys as a ministry have anything to say about it, put your voice on the record that it’s important to rural Nova Scotia.
Anyway, my question is - you say it’s not mandatory for communities and municipalities to apply for WCB - is there a number of how many municipalities actually fall under that category that have applied for that category?
MS. KNIGHT: The number that subscribed?
MR. ORRELL: Yes.
MS. KNIGHT: I have a number of the actual firefighters, I don’t have the number of municipalities. With WCB there are 2,700 volunteer firefighters subscribing and 460 career firefighters.
MR. ORRELL: So I guess, if I may, Mr. Chairman, how many people apply for actual WCB benefits, professional compared to volunteer? Is it higher among professional firefighters or higher among the volunteer firefighters? I know most of rural Nova Scotia is volunteer, so if there are 2,700 volunteers in the program and 460 professionals in the program, how do they compare numbers when they’re receiving benefits or when they draw benefits? Is that something we know?
MS. KNIGHT: Yes, I can get the committee the exact numbers, but to my knowledge the numbers are relatively similar for claims but the claim numbers are quite low.
MR. ORRELL: Okay.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Do you have any more questions, Mr. Orrell?
MS. KNIGHT: I’m sorry, could I just seek clarification, did you mean presumption benefit claims or total claims?
MR. ORRELL: Just total WCB claims.
MR. MONTGOMERIE: We can get that for you.
MR. ORRELL: That’s great, thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Treen.
MS. JOYCE TREEN: The cancers that are covered here under presumptuous cancer, how are those six determined in this province?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: Again, and I’ll ask Joy to add what I missed, they would do a scientific review of the links they are seeing between firefighters and the cancers. If I understand correctly, a lot of it is through the skin that happens that way. The interesting thing is firefighters have pretty sophisticated face protection so it’s not lung stuff, that is not there, you probably noticed. So it’s based on the science and based on the evidence and they link it up. Did I do good, Joy?
MS. TREEN: Can I ask another question? When our unfunded liability is paid down, do you think there will be some more coverage, as far as other cancers go, as more research happens?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: What the Workers’ Compensation Board will do, they are already in their long-term strategic planning looking to see, they’re looking at 2019, 2021, 2022, or 2023, that the liability is looked after. You know, you’ve got market stuff in there that can either hasten it or lengthen it. They’re already looking at what areas they’d like to focus on and come back to as those rates go down.
They’ve indicated - the high level would indicate to government these are some of the things we’re thinking of and we liaise with them all the time. I think their strategic planning process is going to be underway soon, so they’ll be consulting with their stakeholders.
They’re very careful not to raise expectations. They always start out with, we’ve got to stay focused, our eye on the ball, but let’s plan for the future.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Mr. Orrell.
MR. ORRELL: Thank you. This is a question that my colleague here wants to ask but can’t speak very well. You said there’s a percentage and a half of the volunteer firefighters, of the whole 7,000, who are women. Is there a reason that’s the case or are there any incentives being implemented to improve the number of women in the firefighting service?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know if we’ve done an in-depth review of the challenges, particularly in rural Nova Scotia and so on around that issue. To be honest, I’m not sure. I’d be speculating at best.
MR. ORRELL: In my department there are - well there’s only one now because one moved away but there were two women in the department of about 23, which is not a bad average when you think about what stability-wise and at a risk of sounding - women are home, family, they are compassionate about what they do and they make good volunteers in the community because they’re there. So if we could improve those numbers, then I think we would have a more stable firefighting service in the rural area, because of the transient nature of some of the workforce, especially there.
I guess my next question is, of the percentage of people who have applied for WCB, what percentage of that would be women that were in the service?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: We’ll get that for you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Ms. Peterson-Rafuse.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: I just want to get clarification between the paid firefighters and the volunteer firefighters for my own knowledge base. For paid firefighters, they would pay into WCB, their employer, correct?
MR. MONTGOMERIE: Right.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Therefore, if a firefighter was injured on the job and had to apply for workers’ compensation, that would sort of be their insurance to help them replace the wage that they’re losing from not going to work, but what happens with volunteer firefighters? The municipalities pay to have WCB, but if they’re injured and they can’t go to their work, do they get paid - replaced a standard wage or do they receive anything? I just don’t know that - that’s why I’m asking.
MR. MONTGOMERIE: In essence, the full-time and the volunteers pay different rates. The municipality pays a lower rate for the volunteers, but the service is the same. So yes, they would be eligible for whatever benefit and in some cases it would be replacement salary.
MS. KNIGHT: Yes, they would receive the same replacement earning benefits as a career firefighter.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: Of course they’re working in another job not as a volunteer, so if they earn $60,000 a year, then they would get replacement benefits that equal the formula for $60,000 a year?
MS. KNIGHT: Yes, they would be assessed exactly at their employment rate. They receive 75 per cent up to a maximum of $56,000. So if they’re making $60,000, they wouldn’t make 75 per cent of that $60,000 but they would make up the 75 per cent.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE: So that’s comparable to what paid firefighters would receive?
MS. KNIGHT: Yes, it is the exact same benefit.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Are there any other questions? Not hearing any, we will close our discussion and you may have a few minutes to have closing remarks, if you wish.
MR. MONTGOMERIE: I thank the honourable members for their questions. The challenge of volunteer fire departments in particular, the demographics, some of the things the honourable members have raised, they’re huge challenges. Again, the awareness piece for $60, if we can get all those volunteer firefighters covered, it would be great because I think the benefits are reasonably robust.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Thank you for coming today. It has been wonderful to have you so candid in your answers. We’ll take a five-minute recess.
[10:48 a.m. The committee recessed.]
[10:55 a.m. The committee reconvened.]
MR. CHAIRMAN: I’d like to call our meeting back to order. We’ll do our ABCs.
MS. TREEN: For the Department of Agriculture, I move that Arthur Pick be appointed as vice-chair of the Crop and Livestock Insurance Commission of Nova Scotia.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is carried.
MS. MILLER: Mr. Chairman, for the Department of Community Services, I move that Spencer Colley be appointed as a board member of the Preston Area Housing Fund Board of Directors.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Would all those in favour of the motion please say Aye. Contrary minded, Nay.
The motion is carried.
MR. ORRELL: I have a quick question. Are all agencies, boards, and commissions of the province covered by this committee?
MR. CHAIRMAN: No.
MR. ORRELL: Do we have a list of the ones that aren’t, Kim? Or could we get a list, please?
MS. KIM LANGILLE (Legislative Committee Clerk): Yes - the ones that aren’t covered?
MR. ORRELL: Yes, because sometimes when a news release or a press release comes out and it’s a certain board or commission that hasn’t gone through here, it would be nice to know that we’re - great, thank you.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll provide you with that information.
I guess next is outstanding correspondence. Does everyone have copies? We have one here for reconsideration, from Debbie MacKenzie. Does anyone have any questions on that? Mr. Jessome.
MR. JESSOME: I’ll just note that as far as I understand, I guess we’re still waiting for a response from the minister on this file so I’d be most comfortable leaving it there presently.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Is that in the form of a motion?
MR. JESSOME: Just food for thought.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We don’t have to - okay. Ms. Peterson-Rafuse.
MS. PETERSON-RAFUSE. My colleague had mentioned about leaving it there but can we set some parameters around it with respect to some deadline dates? If in fact this lady is saying that she is not receiving any response, there will have to be a point that we’ll have to consider the fact that she is not, and she has requested to meet us.
I think it would need to be in a reasonable time frame for us to discuss it that if we don’t hear anything from the department, and she hasn’t and it’s not resolved, that then we give her the opportunity to present.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Well I don’t know where we go down the road with this, but I’ll ask Mr. Orrell to speak here - he’s got a question.
MR. ORRELL: If I could make a suggestion. Could we write to the Department of Health and Wellness to see if we can have this situation addressed through the department, so we can get the answers she needs so that it’s sooner and not later? Is this something we may be able to see if it’s being addressed even or if we can see if it’s being brought up in the department so that we can move on with this? We don’t want to leave this hanging here.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We’ll take that under consideration. I’m not sure what the answer will be but we won’t respond. (Interruptions) It’s a very difficult situation, in my opinion anyway, in the fact that this committee is probably not the appropriate committee to be dealing with it. It’s more with the HR of the province, of the Department of Health and Wellness.
MR. ORRELL: I understand that. It’s just that if it’s sitting here - the longer it sits here the more it is frustrating for this lady. If we can ask the department to address it and then put it to rest, it would be better for all of us involved.
MR. CHAIRMAN: We can try to get a response from the Department of Health and Wellness HR. Are there any other discussions?
Not hearing any, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Seasons Greetings to all.
MS. LANGILLE: The announcement of the next meeting.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Yes, I guess the next meeting will be in January - there’s always one more duty. I think we normally have the meetings the last Tuesday of the month so it would be January 27th.
That’s it, I think. Is there any more business? Ms. MacFarlane.
MS. KARLA MACFARLANE: Will the time still be the same - 10:00 a.m.? (Interruptions)
MR. CHAIRMAN: I guess that’s acceptable. We’ll make it for 10:00 a.m., January 27th.
Thank you all. Enjoy your Christmas season.
[The committee adjourned at 11:01 a.m.]