2018 was marked by the energy and solidarity of the injured worker community in bringing attention of the public and policy-makers to failures of Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) in delivering fair and timely compensation, particularly for those with permanent impairments or complex claims. Key among initiatives is the ongoing Workers’ Comp Is A Right (WCIAR) Campaign led by the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups (ONIWG). The Campaign continues to spread the message, most recently through a Province-wide Week of Action in nine communities across Ontario, on three major demands:
- The WSIB must listen to our doctors
- No cuts based on phantom jobs
- No cuts blamed on pre-existing conditions
With new groups established this year in Wellington& Dufferin Counties and Sudbury, injured workers’ organizations continue to provide peer support, exchange information on the workers’ compensation system, and advocate for positive changes. Outreach clinics were held in Chatham, Brampton, Owen Sound, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, with the support of ONIWG and community legal clinics, to provide organizing facilitation, legal education and case consultations. A focus on worker-side research also marked the year, under ONIWG-led initiatives, participation in Bancroft Institute research & policy discussions and in academic qualitative studies.
Among the many compensation, health & safety and return to work issues facing injured workers, particular attention focused this year on recognition of occupational illness and mental health injuries. In suffering occupational diseases that can develop many years after exposure to workplace carcinogens and other hazardous substances (in many cases, a “toxic soup of chemicals”), these workers all too frequently encounter insurmountable barriers in meeting the Board’s medical evidence requirements. Their experiences and broader questions about WSIB’s decisionmaking and reconsideration of denied claims received in-depth media coverage, provincial and local. Advocacy by injured workers and their families, unions, occupational health researchers and workers’ legal representatives raised public awareness of the long-term struggles for entitlement to benefits. In particular, attention focused on northern Ontario miners made ill by McIntyre Powder, Peterborough’s General Electric manufacturing plant retirees, Hamilton’s firefighters and Kitchener rubber plant employees.
Renewed attention was also paid to mental injury claims. An Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruling in January (Lawson v Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) found the WSIB failed to accommodate the mental health needs of an injured worker with depression and anxiety, awarding record damages for discrimination on the basis of disability. Later in the year the WSIB’s new restrictive chronic mental stress policy, according to an internal audit, resulted in 94% of claims being denied.
This quasi “autodenial” bore out warnings previously submitted by a Coalition of injured workers, community legal clinics, private bar lawyers, and doctors in a 2017 letter to the Premier that the WSIB had been given license to exclude workers with workplace mental illnesses through unique and almost insurmountable legal and medical hurdles to receiving compensation.
Not on the backs of (injured) workers!
New challenges lie ahead. The new Progressive Conservative government rolled back many labour and employment protections and rights recently introduced for a changing, increasingly precarious workforce. In September, under the same Open for Business slogan, the WSIB and new Minister of Labour Laurie Scott announced cuts of almost 30% to employers’ premiums – source of funding for the workers’ compensation system under the historic compromise enacted in Canadian workers’ compensation legislation (and for which, in return, injured workers gave up their right to sue their employer for their injury). ONIWG pushed back, reminding the government that injured workers have already borne the burden of paying off the Board’s manufactured “unfunded liability” financial crisis, with benefit payments slashed from $4.8 billion in 2010 to $2.3 billion in 2017. Although almost half of injured workers with a permanent disability are now living at or near poverty levels, this $1.45 billion gift to employers and the renewed focus on lowering premiums leave little prospect of workers’ benefits being restored.
In its Fall economic statement the government announced a review of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to address sustainability, efficiency and governance. WSIB staff, in a recent survey following implementation of a new service delivery model, have called for additional resources for a broken system that is putting injured workers at risk.
It is hoped that the government, in its forthcoming review of the WSIB, listens to injured workers’ concerns not only on wait times, but on the changes to policies, practices and funding needed to ensure fair compensation.