Amid limited access to PCR testing for COVID-19 and shortages of free rapid test kits, the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board says it will accept a physician diagnosis in lieu of test results for workers who contract the virus on the job.
A spokesperson with the WCB said if impacted workers aren’t able to access a test or speak with a health-care practitioner, they will pay for PCR testing for the employee. That’s also something that can be done to verify rapid test results, the board said.
“We’re really committed to not letting access to testing to be a barrier for workers’ benefit entitlements,” said Ben Dille.
“The name of the game for us is being flexible and adaptable. We’re going to work with these injured workers as closely as we can to make sure they get the treatment and the support that they need.”
Access to PCR testing for COVID-19 through Alberta Health Services has been hugely limited amid the ongoing surge of the pandemic driven by the ultra-contagious Omicron variant, with appointments confined to high-risk individuals and settings as of Monday. Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw has asked that Albertans who don’t fall into those high-risk categories complete rapid tests, but the free testing kits are near-impossible to come by amid scarce supply.
The lack of testing means that Alberta’s reported case rates significantly underrepresent the number of virus infections in the community, with Hinshaw estimating only about one-in-10 cases are being captured by PCR testing.
For Albertans who do test positive using a rapid test, the province has released a form that can be used to self-document the test. Hinshaw asked Albertans not to contact their family doctors to document their rapid test results, saying the sheer number of infections provincewide means this isn’t feasible. She also urged employers not to require proof of illness with COVID-19 in approving sick leave requests.
That informal ask doesn’t do enough to ensure workers are protected if they need to isolate due to a suspected COVID-19 infection, said Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan.
“We have profound concerns,” McGowan said, adding he’s asked Labour and Immigration Minister Tyler Shandro to provide more information on what workers should do if they get sick but don’t have access to testing.
“Without access to testing, workers are going to be in a very uncomfortable position with their employer if they get sick. I like to think that most employers will take their workers’ word for it when they call in sick, but the reality is that at least some employers will not demonstrate such goodwill.
“Workers need clarity and they need rules to protect their interests.”
In a statement, Shandro’s press secretary Joseph Dow said employers are entitled to job-protected COVID-19 leave if they need to quarantine.
“We encourage employers and employees to work together to make sure employees can stay home when they are sick and prevent the spread of illness,” Dow said. “Employees do not have to submit PCR or rapid test results to their employer in order to be eligible for this leave.”
Dille said for workers who may develop long COVID symptoms and require benefits for that illness but do not have a test result documented, a physician would assess the patient.
The WCB received 348 claims related to COVID-19 in December 2021, but Dille said a higher volume is anticipated moving forward as impacts of the fifth wave are more widely felt. The board has received 15,066 such claims since the start of the pandemic, accepting about 85 per cent of them. On average, workers have spent 17.3 days away from work, and the board has accepted 33 fatality claims related to COVID-19.
McGowan also raised concerns that without adequate contract tracing of cases in Alberta, it will be “virtually impossible” to prove a COVID-19 case was contracted at work, potentially hindering claims. Alberta’s contact tracing system has been overwhelmed by the Omicron surge, with 91 per cent of active PCR-confirmed cases coming from an unknown origin.
Elsewhere, a spokesperson for the Canada Revenue Agency said applications for the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit are attestation-based, meaning proof is not required when applying for the aid. That federal program gives income supports to those unable to work because they are sick with or have to isolate due to COVID-19.
But the agency said they may later ask for documentation, including a letter or email from a person of authority showing the applicant had to self-isolate because of the virus.