Selected news and events from the past year:
The year starts as 2020 ended, with a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in Ontario workplaces placing a disproportionate burden on racialized and Indigenous workers. While the government improves workplace inspections of infection control, demands increase for policies to improve the employment conditions of essential workers, including reinstatement of paid sick days. Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) resumes its Occ-COVID webinar series to share scientific evidence on keeping workplaces safe.
The Workers Comp Is A Rights (WCIAR) campaign continues lobbying the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) for much-needed COVID-19 relief for injured workers.
Ontario’s Ministry of Labour opens Temporary Help Agency Consultations aimed at addressing employment standards violations. While the Workers Action Centre, Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic (IWC) and other advocates support the proposed mandatory licensing of temp agencies and agencies recruiting migrant workers, they also call for regulations set out under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act (WSIA) s.83(4) to be immediately brought into effect – removing financial incentives under the WSIB’s experience rating program for companies to contract out their more dangerous work to agency workers.
Quebec’s Bill 59 overhauling the province’s workplace health & safety and compensation regime goes to Committee for public hearings. (Despite widespread opposition by unions, advocates and healthcare professionals as a setback for workers’ rights, particularly women, the amended legislation comes into force in October).
Alberta – Following the large-scale outbreak at the Cargill meat plant, the RCMP opens the first known police investigation in Canada of a workplace-related COVID-19 death. The labour movement continues to raise awareness that Ontario has been reluctant to use a Westray lens and open similar criminal negligence investigations.
Thunder Bay & District Injured Workers Support Group hosts a second year of online weekly information and advocacy sessions , collaborating with legal clinics and other partners to keep making progress on rights education and reform.
Calls mount for equity for low-income, essential precarious workers in the vaccine rollout. The Ministry of Labour issues non-compliance orders to one in five southernwestern Ontario farms following inspections to prevent last years’ COVID-19 toll on migrant workers. Advocates, including Justice 4 Migrant Workers, emphasize that safety blitzes alone do not address the systemic problems creating unsafe environments.
With increasing evidence of the lasting health effects on many who contract COVID-19, concern grows over WSIB recognition of “long COVID” and the Board’s insistence, under its Better at Work policy, on return to work before time to heal.
The 22nd RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) International Awareness Day (Feb. 28), founded by injured worker activist leader Catherine Fenech, is celebrated in a week-long series of webinars hosted by OHCOW.
Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups (ONIWG) makes a submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) consultation on Convention Article 27 (the right to work and employment). The brief references ONIWG’s earlier submission to the CRPD on income security and WSIB’s deeming practices.
Organizers at Warehouse Workers Centre express dismay at the length of time taken for public health orders to force a shut down of the Amazon facility in Peel over a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak and labour violations.
WSIA amendment Bill 267, introduced by NDP MPP Monique Taylor, would provide essential workers with presumptive access to WSIB benefits for mental health injuries sustained at work during the pandemic. (The bill is later defeated by vote at second reading).
The government announces a consultation on extending WSIA Coverage for Personal Support Workers and Developmental Support Workers, responding to a recommendation in the WSIB Operational Review. While supporting the proposal, IWC and other legal clinics emphasize in submissions that mandatory and universal workers’ compensation coverage is a protection that should be provided to all workers.
Workers at WSIB give their union an overwhelming vote to strike as bargaining continues over pay, workload and unresolved labour issues.
Finally answering persistent calls by local leaders, health professionals and labour advocates for paid sick days, the government passes Bill 284 as Ontario enters a third COVID-19 wave. Panned for providing a scant 3 paid days for COVID-related leave for sickness and vaccinations, the legislation allows eligible employers to apply to WSIB for reimbursements. (Scheduled to expire in December, the sick pay program has since been extended until July 31, 2022).
Government Bill 238 amending the WSIA also passes into law, COVID-relief legislation protecting businesses (in effect, larger businesses) from unexpected increases in their WSIB premiums. Proposed amendments by advocates at the Committee stage to also benefit those who most need help – injured workers – are rejected.
As April 28, the national Day of Mourning approaches providing a reminder that workplaces should be safe, the WSIB has recognized approximately 22,000 COVID-related lost-time claims, including only 46 allowed claims for COVID deaths. These figures, as the Workers Health & Safety Centre makes clear, fail to reflect the true toll of occupational injuries and diseases, the majority of which go unreported or unrecognized.
The BC Federation of Labour issues Workers Deserve Better: How We Can Build The Workers’ Compensation System That Injured Workers Need. Informed by the 2019 Patterson review, it lays out actions taken and the legislative and policy changes still needed.
Manitoba’s Bill 18 amends the Workers’ Compensation Act, expanding the definitions of “accident” and “occupational disease”, creating a presumptive schedule of occupational diseases and placing tighter restrictions on employer access to worker health information. However advocates remain concerned over encouragement of claims suppression.
The Canadian Uranium Workers Study, led by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, will be the largest examination of lung cancer in uranium workers across the country to date, building on results of the earlier Eldorado study and the Ontario Uranium Mine Workers Study.
“Injured Workers Will No Longer Be Forgotten” – ONIWG’s message on annual Injured Workers Day (June 1) tells MPPs that injured workers need COVID-19 relief and key long-standing issues addressed now. As IWC lawyer Tebasum Durrani details, the pandemic has exposed gaping holes in Ontario’s workers compensations system.
Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton establishes the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee (OWRAC) on the future of work to propose labour reforms and training needs, though it draws criticism for a flawed consultation process and lack of worker representation (in contrast to the 2018 Changing Workplaces Review).
Nickel miners at Vale’s Sudbury operations go on strike to stop their company from clawing back key health benefits at a time when workplace injuries have tripled over five years.
Delayed by COVID-19, Newfoundland publishes the final report of its 2019 Statutory Review on the Workers’ Compensation System
Based on a recommendation from the WSIB Operational Review, the government issues a consultation paper on a WSIB Insurance Fund Surplus Distribution Model. The injured worker community is united in outrage that the government would transfer billions from workers’ compensation funds to further reward employers rather than restore to injured workers benefits cut or denied in the name of eliminating the ‘unfunded’ liability.
U.S. non-profit Partners for Dignity & Rights (formerly NESRI) releases Democratizing Workers’ Compensation on reforms needed to protect workers’ lives. The report proposes mechanisms of participatory governance to shift the power imbalance, giving workers and workers’ organizations a permanent role in standard-setting, monitoring and enforcement, and introducing accountability into existing workers’ compensation systems.
Ontario certifies a $400 million class action lawsuit against Uber, advancing a fight to get some of the platform’s app-based couriers and drivers recognized as employees rather than as independent contractors, and thereby entitled to protections under the Employment Standards Act.
Proposal by the Ontario Association of Police Chiefs to establish a formal process to dispute PTSD claims and clawback WSIB benefits for officers too psychologically traumatized to return to work is met with ‘disbelief and disgust’ from the rank and file. “What they’re communicating to the injured officers is basically, we don’t trust you and we think you’re milking the system…”
The Ontario Legislature ends its current session September 12. Four private member bills amending the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act are brought to a halt: Bill 119 (deeming) and Bill 191 (COVID-19 presumption) both introduced by NDP MPP Wayne Gates; Bill 194 (coverage – Lib MPP John Fraser); Bill 267 (mental health support – NDP MPP Monique Taylor).
Charges under Ontario’s occupational health and safety laws are laid in the first COVID-related prosecution of an employer, Scotlynn Growers and its owner, at a southern Ontario farm where a massive COVID-19 outbreak claimed the life of Mexican migrant worker Juan Lopez Chaparro.
The injured worker community joins in mourning the death of Katherine Lippel, Distinguished Research Chair in Occupational Health and Safety Law and advocate for workers’ compensation reform. As a colleague said in tribute: “Passionate about social justice she devoted her entire career to defending the rights of vulnerable workers, women, migrant workers and youth, with particular attention to the links between precarious work and systemic discrimination and occupational health.”
The Institute for Work & Health hosts the COVID-delayed XXII World Congress on Safety and Health at Work with theme ‘Prevention In The Connected World’.
With the book launch of Code White occupational health and safety researchers Drs Margaret Keith and James Brophy continue their campaign to sound the alarm on the shocking epidemic of almost routine violence faced by healthcare workers, primarily women and racialized workers; the lack of support and protections for those who speak out; and systemic issues of underfunding and understaffing. (Nurse unions welcome the federal government’s November Bill C-3 Criminal Code amendment; in December with Bill 68 NDP MPP France Gélinas re-introduces legislation to give workers who speak out about workplace violence and harassment protection against reprisals.)
British Columbia Ombudsman investigation report Severed Trust recommends legislation that would enable WorkSafeBC to do the right thing and voluntarily pay money to someone when the workers’ compensation board determines that their own error has caused a grievous injury.
At its annual general meeting the WSIB announces a further reduction of the average premium rate by 5.1% in 2022 – on top of the 47.1% reduction given to employers in their premium rates between 2018 and 2021.
Schedule 6 of the government’s Bill 27, Working for Workers Act introduces the legislative changes to the workers’ compensation act enabling WSIB distribution of ‘surplus funds’. At Committee hearings and in submissions advocates propose amendments including restitution for injured workers, stakeholder consultation on compensation system inadequacies before surplus distribution to employers, and annual WSIB audits of claims suppression (as recommended by the Speer-Dykeman WSIB Operational Review) to avoid doubly rewarding unsafe employers.
Bill 27’s Schedule 2 includes the mandatory licensing of temporary help and recruitment agencies to end working conditions the Minister of Labour describes as akin to “modern-day slavery” and improve accountability. However the issue of liability of client companies’ for WSIB premiums based on injuries, accidents and deaths of their temp agency workers (WSIB s.83(4)) has yet to be addressed.
Private member Bill 16, a WSIA amendment introduced for the fourth time, would extend WSIB coverage to all workers in residential care facilities and group homes.
Occupational disease cluster advocacy groups throughout Ontario establish the Occupational Disease Reform Alliance (ODRA), including Chemical Valley (Sarnia), General Electric (Peterborough), McIntyre Power (Northern Ontario & mining communities); Paper Mill (RB4) – Dryden; steel mills (Sault Ste Marie); rubber workers (Kitchener-Waterloo); Pebra/Ventra Plastics (Peterborough); Neelon Castings (Sudbury). Formed a year after the Demers report findings that well over 90% of occupational cancers are unrecognized and uncompensated by the WSIB every year, the ODRA is calling for action to change the system meant to protect them.
The 2021 Report on Work Fatality and Injury Rates in Canada by Sean Tucker and Anya Keefe finds that some provinces, including Ontario, which previously had low rates of lost time due to injury are now starting to see those numbers climb. Produced annually since 2016, the report also analyzes underreporting and other limitations of available data to revealing the full extent of occupational injury and disease.
Yukon introduces Bill 8, the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Act to revamp – “modernize and amalgamate” – the Workers’ Compensation Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
The WSIB’s Scientific Advisory Table on Occupational Disease is establishedto help shape provincial policy on compensation. Advocates caution it must consider all the evidence, including that gathered by workers and their families. Ontario’s Ministry of Labour provides $6 million in funding to the Occupational Cancer Research Centre to track and research workplace cancer exposures.
IWC and ONIWG in submissions to Schedule 9 of Bill 43 (Budget Measures Act) raising the minimum wage propose amendments that would prevent injured workers taking a hit because of the WSIB’s ‘deeming’ practice.
Prince Edward Island passes Workers Compensation Act amendments, increasing benefit indexation, revising definitions of “worker” and “accident”;
The Northwest Territories and Nunavut begin a second consultation on replacing lifetime pension benefits for permanent impairments with a one-time lump sum for non-economic loss and an ongoing wage loss benefit.
Safe Work Australia issues a review report on whether workers’ compensation coverage is still ‘fit for purpose’ given the changing nature of work, using gig economy and agriculture industry case studies.
Ontario releases The Future of Work in Ontario, recommendations of the OWRAC report, raising charges that it not only misclassifies gig workers (in a new category of dependent contractor) giving them fewer legal protections but also opens the door to gutting employment standards for all Ontario workers.
The 2021 Disability and Work in Canada conference goes virtual with theme “Achieving equality of opportunity and choice.”
A scathing report by the federal Auditor-General finds Canada is failing to ensure agricultural producers are protecting migrant workers from COVID-19.
British Columbia’s Minister of Labour issues a statement on recent improvements made to the province’s workers’ compensation system, committing in 2022 to explore further reforms proposed by recent reports to meet the needs of injured workers.
And in a final Tuesday session for the year, Thunder Bay’s injured workers group presents its revised Platform for Change, a worker-centred vision for Ontario’s workers compensation system that lays out a pathway for meeting the needs of this province’s injured workers.