The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is a day to reflect also on the poverty close at home. One in six Canadians currently live in poverty, and in Ontario the percentage is slightly higher at 17%. While Toronto and Windsor rank high in poverty rates, a recent Statement on Rural Poverty in Ontario highlights additional challenges faced by those living outside urban areas. In an October 8 Toronto Star article, York University Professor of Health Policy Dennis Raphael, spells out the dire negative impacts of poverty on health outcomes for Ontario’s workers and the need for government to implement labour laws and policies that improve the quality of life.
Injured worker poverty
According to Statistics Canada data, in the general population persons with a disability are at significantly higher risk of poverty. Among Ontario injured workers with permanent impairments, a RAACWI study estimated just under 50 percent of the workers’ compensation claimants surveyed live in or close to the poverty line, with 9% in deep poverty. All too often injured workers and their families are falling into a vicious cycle of poverty, struggle and social and economic exclusion when denied workers’ compensation or have their benefits cut off when unable to get employment after their injury.
Shifting the cost of injury from employer to public purse
On top of physical and mental harm, the cuts to employers’ premiums recently announced by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) and Minister of Labour increase fears that the financial price of the government’s austerity measures will continue to be paid by injured workers – and other taxpayers.
This is not how our workers’ compensation system was intended to function. The Meredith Principles on which it was developed aimed to balance the interests of worker, employer and the public at large. Injured workers gave up the right to sue in exchange for prompt benefits as long as the disability lasted and employers were spared costly lawsuits. Employers, able to benefit from collective liability and to pass on the costs, would fund the system (and have an incentive to provide a safe workplace). The economic burden was not to fall on the worker or the public at large.
Policy changes in recent years have betrayed this bargain known as the “historic compromise”, increasingly transferring the economic burden to the worker and his/her family, and onto public programs. Consequently a recent research initiative explores how to effectively track outcomes for the growing number of workers with occupational injuries or illnesses who are being forced from workers’ compensation system onto social assistance (such as the Ontario Disability Support Program) because of increasingly restrictive practices and benefit cuts by the Board.
Good will and awareness alone cannot create inclusion or eliminate poverty of injured workers. It requires systemic reform of the workers’ compensation system. Among the system failures it addresses, the Workers’ Comp Is A Right campaign is working on the elimination of ‘deeming’ – one of the biggest culprits in sending injured workers with permanent impairments into poverty. Deeming is the practice by which the WSIB assumes that an injured worker is capable of doing a job that they have not obtained yet or may not obtain in the future, and cuts their compensation based on that assumed wage. The injured worker is not able to obtain the job due to systemic issues – intersection of disability stigma in hiring practices and the physical symptoms that prevent them from working that job. However, the cut in compensation is real and promotes poverty. (This is one of three major systemic issues that the campaign is working to reform)
- Noiles, Willy (Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups). Oct. 4. “Ford’s WSIB: Premium Cuts for Employers, Austerity for Injured Workers”. Rank and File.ca
- Citizens for Public Justice. 2018 Oct. Poverty Trends 2018. Ottawa: CPJ
- Richards, Amanda & Sara Penny. 2017 Nov. Where Did They Go? Scoping the Ability to Track Outcomes for Injured Workers. Waterloo: University of Waterloo
- Ballantyne, Peri J. et al. 2016. “Poverty Status of Workers’ Compensation Claimants with Permanent Impairments.” Critical Public Health 26(2): 173-190