Better at Work? The workplace is not a rehabilitation centre!
With adequate time for medical recovery and job accommodation, an injured worker should be able to return to work safely and without fear of reinjury. The Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups, in its July 2016 letter to the Premier, calls on the Government and the WSIB to engage in a conversation about their mistaken and harmful philosophy (Better at Work) that “immediate” return to work, rather than “early and safe” return to work, is always preferable… The Toronto Star Sep. 12, 2016 frontpage article describes why critics, from injured workers to legal representatives to academic researchers, say it pushes hurt workers into ‘humiliating’ jobs and unemployment.
The goal of vocational rehabilitation should be decent, safe and sustainable work for the worker who is actually employed as a result – not merely “deemed” to be employed. It must provide financial security for the worker if return to work fails.
Ontario’s vocational rehabilitation program (now “work transition”) has undergone many changes in recent years, particularly under the 1998 Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (Bill 99). The new Board outsourced to the private sector its retraining services for those unable to return to their previous employer (Labour Market Re-entry program). Its many problems were made public in the Toronto Star’s 2009 report “A jobs program that fails” and Ontario Ombudsman investigation of private career colleges.
The current program came into full effect in 2011 following KPMG’s 2009 LMR Value-for-Money Audit recommendations. It merged the Labour Market Re-entry and Early and Safe Return to Work programs, and put all rehabilitation services back under the Board’s direct operation.
During the rushed consultations, injured workers and their advocates raised concerns about:
- Lack of time to heal and the risk of re-injury – the new focus on returning injured workers to the workplace with their accident employers should not mean workers are pressured to “get back to work” too soon
- Expansion of deeming – with more deemed wage increases and now deemed relocation in search of work (even if that location offers only job opportunities, not an actual job offer)
- Arbitrary and harmful time limits on retraining – using the Board’s own statistics, job retraining has since been cut from 19 months to 5 months
- Cutbacks for older workers (“over 55 transition plan”) – given the job prospects for injured older workers, the choice between completing a Work Transition plan and then facing unemployment, or accepting 12 months of benefits instead is not really a fair choice at all
They also called on the Board to take steps to address:
- the special needs of more vulnerable workers (those injured while working in non-unionized workplaces, often in temporary or precarious jobs)
- early recognition of toxic work environments
- continued access to retraining and loss of earnings benefits if employment relationships break down
The need for a supportive work environment
Goodwill and trust in the workplace by employer and co-workers are key to a successful return to work. Suspicion of the legitimacy of an injury, resentment over job accommodations, myths that workers with disabilities are less productive or will be more costly or affect experience rating – all can add stress and prove a barrier to recovery. Returning workers, if feeling pressured to constantly “prove” they are pulling their weight, also run the risk of physical re-injury.
- Gewurtz, Rebecca, Stephanie Premji & Linn Holness. 2016. Injured Workers Who Experience Challenges Returning to Work: Pathways and Consequences
- Prince, Michael J. 2014. “Employment Equality for Canadians with Disabilities.” Presentation to Dignity for All: Labour, Employment, and Poverty Summit, Ottawa, June 9-10, 2014
- WSIB. 2011-2013. Documents re Older Worker Option (received through IAVGO freedom of information request)
- Law Commission of Ontario. 2012 Dec. Vulnerable Workers and Precarious Work: Final Report. Toronto: LCO
- MacEachen, Ellen et al. 2010. “The ‘Toxic Dose’ of System Problems: Why Some Workers Don’t Return to Work as Expected.” Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation 20: 349-366
- Toronto Injured Workers’ Advocacy Group. 2010. Submission re: New Work Reintegration Program. Toronto: TIWAG
- Eakin, Joan M. 2006. “Playing it Smart with Return to Work: Small Workplace Experience with Early Return and Workplace Self Reliance.” Presentation to Prévenir l’incapacité au travail: un symposium pour favoriser l’action concertée, Montréal, Oct. 23