May 8, 2012

Witmer nominated as next Workplace Safety and Insurance Board chair for Ontario

Various construction industry stakeholders are pleased but astonished that former Progressive Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer has been nominated to chair the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

“We’re shocked she would take on such a tough assignment that most people would turn away from because it is wrought with challenges and difficulties,” said Frank Viti, Merit Ontario president.

The WSIB faces many challenges such as an unfunded liability estimated at $14 billion, the implementation of Bill 119, which will bring in 70,000 to 80,000 people into the organization, and full indexation of disability benefits to partially disabled workers.

Viti said the WSIB is in desperate need of the type of leadership Witmer can provide.

“They’re going to have some really strong leadership, someone who is fiscally conservative to drive some real reform and strong leadership at an agency that’s really, really not well.”

Witmer, the former MPP from Kitchener-Waterloo, takes over from outgoing chair Steve Mahoney. She would be appointed for a five-year term if her nomination is supported.

She has led various ministries and as Minister of Labour, Witmer brought in Bill 99 and effectively overhauled the province’s workers’ compensation system.

David Frame, the Ontario General Contractors Association’s (OGCA) director of government relations, described Witmer as an “excellent” Minister of Labour.

“She knows the file extremely well, she’s probably the best choice they could have made.”

The review of the WSIB’s unfunded liability, by the former dean of Osgood Hall Law School, Harry Arthurs, is expected soon and Ian Cunningham, Council of Ontario Construction Associations (COCA) president, fears that it will recommend full indexation.

“Of course, the unfunded liability is currently estimated at about $14 billion, this would drive it well over $16 billion,” he said.

“Our goal is a worker’s compensation system that is fair to all stakeholders, employers and workers and a system that is sustainable. Obviously it’s on shaky financial ground right now so making the system sustainable in the long-term is the overall objective.”

The Arthur’s Review will address difficult areas.

“They’re going to have to come up with a new funding strategy. She’s very likely to recommend some significant increases in assessment rates in the next couple of years,” said Frame.

“The Ontario WSIB system is already the most expensive in the country and it’s going to get more expensive, she’s got a tricky responsibility of putting that together and moving that forward.”

He is also concerned about the implementation of Bill 119.

“We’re very concerned about the board’s ability to reach out to independent operators, people who have tried to stay out of the WSIB and get them registered. There’s a huge job in terms of doing that.”

Alex Lolua, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Construction Council of Ontario (CCO), director of government and public relations, said WSIB chair is a challenging and difficult position that combines political and humanitarian skills.

During Witmer’s tenure, the IBEW would like to see that the WSIB is as responsive as it can be towards injured workers, said Lolua.

“That people get the proper entitlements and that they do so in a fair and compassionate manner,” he said.

“I think she’s the kind of person that can get the kind of service delivery that we’d like to see out of the board.”

Witmer’s nomination is subject to review by the Standing Committee on Government Agencies.

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