Occupational injury or disease can devastate a worker’s household income. Policy changes to workers’ compensation have increased claims denials and cut benefits, forcing an increasing number of injured workers onto taxpayer-funded social assistance. Many – the true number unknown because the government does not track such statistics – are forced to rely on welfare because their claims were denied or delayed.
The links between poverty and health are well-known. For injured workers, financial insecurity compounds psychological and physical harm; WSIB policies such as deeming create only phantom jobs and empty pockets; the Board’s failure to apply required full cost-of-living adjustment to benefits forces tough decisions particularly in times of high inflation.
Employment barriers consistently pose challenges for those able to return to work. According to the most current Statistics Canada data (2017 Canadian Survey on Disability) the employment rate of working-age persons with disabilities is 59% compared to 80% for those without disabilities. During economic downturns including that of the COVID-19 pandemic, injured workers and persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable in the labour market. Age-based discrimination in the workers’ compensation system further contributes to poverty among older and retired injured workers.
The depth of injured worker poverty
A study led by Peri Ballantyne “Poverty Status of Worker Compensation Claimants with Permanent Impairments” (Critical Public Health) provides an in-depth look at the level of poverty among Ontario injured workers and families, health and social characteristics, income and employment changes. The Thunder Bay & District Injured Workers Support Group’s 2022 submission to the government’s pre-budget hearings details the impact of growing income inequality on this community.
The second of two RAACWI-funded ONIWG surveys on injured workers and poverty confirmed that injured workers take the risks and pay the price:
- Injured workers experience nearly 4 times the rate of poverty for Ontario
- 1 in 5 workers are living in extreme poverty after injury (less than $10,000 per year). Just over 40% reported an income of less than $15,000/year
- only 7 of the injured workers surveyed had used a food bank before they were injured. After injury, the number rose to 77
- 1 in 5 workers lost their home after injury
- over 50% were unable to afford the prescriptions they needed
- before injury almost 90% were employed full-time, after injury only 9% still were
A call for real poverty reduction
The federal government’s new Canada Disability Benefit (Bill C-22, 2022) aims to provide some relief to financial insecurity, though many questions are still to be answered. The Ontario government’s 2020-2025 Poverty Reduction Strategy continues the previous 5-year poverty strategy commitment to supporting employment for persons with disabilities and to helping employers overcome misconceptions. However the new strategy falls short in addressing key concerns:
…Many people, particularly women, racialized groups and people living with disabilities, experience poverty because they work low-income and precarious jobs. The Strategy could benefit from greater acknowledgement of this reality and by including measures to help Code-protected groups overcome the systemic barriers to employment they often face and gain meaningful jobs despite current labour market conditions…Ontario Human Rights Commission, Jan. 26 2021
- MacEachen, Ellen et al. 2023. “Retirement pension poverty among injured workers with long-term workers’ compensation claims.” Economic & Labour Relations Review 1-19.
- Thunder Bay & District Injured Workers Support Group, ONIWG-RAC. 2022 Jan. 10. Submission to Committee on Finance & Economic Affairs Pre-Budget Hearings.
- Feed Ontario. 2022 Nov. Hunger Report 2022: The Deepening Cracks in Ontario’s Economic Foundation. Toronto
- Pettinicchio, David and Michelle Maroto. 2020 Mar. 13. “Canadians with disabilities face an uncertain financial future.” UofT News
- Feed Ontario. 2019 Oct. The Cost of Poverty in Ontario (examines the relationship between poverty, poor health, the justice system and lost productivity).
- Tompa, Emile. 2017 Nov. 24. Labour-market Earnings Recovery Following Permanent Impairment After Work Injury (presentation). Toronto: Institute for Work & Health
- Richards, Amanda et al. 2017 Nov. Where Did They Go? Scoping the Ability to Track Social Assistance Outcomes for Injured Workers. Waterloo: University of Waterloo.
- Ballantyne, Peri J, et al. 2016. “Poverty status of worker compensation claimants with permanent impairments.” Critical Public Health 26(2): 173-190
- Stapleton, John. 2013. The ‘Welfareization’ of Disability Incomes in Ontario. Toronto: Metcalf Foundation (and his later publications on the working poor)
- Brotchie, Karli, and Becky Casey. 2008. “Poverty in Motion: The Rippling Effects” . Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay & District Injured Workers’ Support Group