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Sask safety associations in four-year fight with WCB

An industry association representative, a whistleblower and the leader of the Buffalo Party complain a conflict of interest exists on the Saskatchewan Workers Compensation Board and WCB is making unacceptable demands for information as a condition of giving organizations funds they are due.

Buffalo Party leader Phil Zajac provided the Western Standard with documents he received from a whistleblower. Among them was a letter sent by the Safety Association of Saskatchewan Manufacturers (SASM) to its members.

“On December 21 2021, several safety associations and members met with the minister and premier staff members to request an investigation into the unethical behaviors such as bullying, threats, breaches of confidentiality, etc., of the WCB administration. A formal complaint was also filed with the WCB Board including allegations of breach of confidentiality and conflicts of interest,” the letter explained.

“This lack of response displays a concerning level of negligence and indifference towards employers from the WCB Board and the Minister’s office.”

SASM said it had requested Don Morgan, Minister for Labour Relations and Workplace Safety and for the Workers’ Compensation Board, to appoint an arbitrator to adjudicate on their funding request by September 15 2023. Otherwise, SASM members would have to absorb legal costs, “a situation that we find wholly unacceptable.”

The board said “repeated attempts to engage with the WCB board…[were] met with rejection” and a “disheartening refusal.”

“One of our primary concerns is the continuous threat to our funding, a direct violation of the terms of mediation,” the letter explained.

“The anxiety and stress this causes our employees is palpable. If WCB is allowed to leave SASM with no funds in reserve…our board is left without knowing how to cover the cost of contracts, lease agreement…[and] salaries.”

Shantel Lipp, president of the Sask Heavy Construction Association, said problems began in 2019 when WCB imposed requirements to share more information about their members to WCB. She said those were done with WCB board approval but with no consultation with safety associations.

“The CEO [Germain’s] former business partner [at Proactive] began contacting individuals stating that he's aware that the funding agreement is going to change….He hired a former CEO of SASM to go in and begin recruiting some of the companies that SASM was servicing at the time to his [safety training] school. And...he tried to recruit the current SASM CEO to come and work for him as well."

Only after this did the WCB officially tell safety associations about a new funding framework. Lipp said following this, safety organizations met with the then-deputy premier and the deputy minister of labour relations and workplace safety.

“The issue of confidentiality was raised with those two. And so of course, it was a concern to both,” Lipp said.

A request for an arbitrator was refused, and the government appointed a mediator instead. Lipp said in May of 2021, the mediators produced an agreement. The safety associations thought WCB was onside, only to find they continued to insist on their initial terms.

“It was at that point in time that the complaint was lodged with the WCB regarding...the conflict of interest for the CEO,” she said.

According to Lipp, the response from the board was, ‘He said he no longer owns any stake in the training school. And so we're satisfied with that’ without looking further into the fact that…he is still listed on the land title as a business partner.”

Lipp said she finally succeeded in getting the December 21 2021 meeting with the WCB board and deputy ministers. Seven safety associations were there to present concerns with the WCB proposals.

“It basically took all of the authority away from their association boards. Their association boards were really redundant, they no longer have the ability to approve an operating budget because WCB was basically dictating to them what they should or shouldn't be doing.”

Lipp said the safety associations could talk to their members but were otherwise muzzled by rules the WCB placed on them, which was why she had to facilitate meetings as an industry association leader instead.

“They couldn't go to the minister, they couldn't go to the board directly, because that was a breach of one of the requirements in the contract,” she explained.

Saskatchewan’s safety associations are the only ones in Canada that could not sell memberships. Instead, they have employer levies administered by WCB that go to safety associations. However, WCB has withheld these funds and pledged to continue to do so until safety associations agree to its conditions, which include sharing members’ private information.

Buffalo Party leader Phil Zajac reached out to the Western Standard with documents pertaining to WCB, its CEO Phil Germain and safety training company Proactive Consulting Services. Zajac said an insider handed them to him with some hesitation.

“He didn't want to meet me face to face; he literally wanted to mail me the documents. And we talked on the phone for about an hour and a half and then I said, ‘Man, do you want to just meet in the Harley Davidson parking lot?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, I trust you.’”

The documents include land titles and business return information that shows Chris Budzich owns three-quarters of Proactive Consulting Services Ltd. under entity number 101043935. The company does safety training in the province and Germain used to be a co-owner.

Buildings that Proactive Consulting uses in Regina and Saskatoon is on land owned by 101234698 Saskatchewan Ltd., of which Budzich holds 574 shares; Germain, 234; and Greg Taylor, 192.

The Western Standard reached out to WCB, Phil Germain, Proactive Consulting, and the Saskatchewan Party government, but did not receive replies.

Lipp said SASM has already laid off employees due to the financial crunch and that reduced worker safety could ensue. However, the information WCB wants is a deal-breaker.

“SASM simply can't give it to them. They signed confidentiality agreements with their members.”

Lipp said all MLAs have been made personally aware of the situation, but a “stalemate” continues.

Zajac said accountability must come.

“They have a board that is willing to do nothing,” he said of the WCB board.

“WCB is operating like the mafia. They know they're not going to get investigated for anything and they think they can do whatever they want to, and that's got to stop, like yesterday.”

WCB regulations say its “duty to avoid conflict of interest” is defined as “any situation in which a member's ability to act in the best interest of WCB is compromised, or potentially compromised by personal business or other interests.”

Zajac said this situation is a clear violation. 

“The Deputy Premier knew that something was up, MLAs knew that something was up, and they just voted down investigations. The Sask Party's mantra: we are above the law. And can we do everything we can do whatever we want,” he said.