Recently, Tom Teahen, president of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (“WSIB”) announced his resignation, with little fanfare. So far, the only public mention of this has been via his Twitter account. While his departure has yet to make waves, his time at the helm of Canada’s largest workers compensation system certainly has. As the province searches for another president, what kind of legacy does Teahen leave for Ontario injured workers?
Prior to joining the WSIB, Teahen was a senior advisor to the Minister of Labour, where he played a helpful role in getting Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic (IWC’s) message across to the Ministry. When he came to the WSIB, he was known as someone who was approachable and would listen to worker advocates. But his tenure at the WSIB has been marked by policies that have hurt injured workers. While he may have been more approachable CEO, than his predecessor David Marshall, he was still part of the senior management team that made very harsh cuts to workers’ benefits.
In his farewell Tweet, Teahen claims he eliminated the WSIB’s unfunded liability. But at what cost? Prior to becoming CEO, Teahen was Chief Corporate Services officer from 2010 to 2013 under Marshall. And Marshall was certainly clear about his agenda from day one, challenging his team about:
…whether we can reduce our rate of long-term beneficiaries by half. What would that do to our income stream?…I mean, you can’t recover this amount of money without some sort of pain somewhere else in the system.
(Hansard, February 24, 2010)
Teahen was responsible for implementing significant cost-cutting measures that resulted in $278 million in cuts to compensation for lost wages for workers, $83 million cuts to compensation for permanent injuries and $51 million reduction in health care costs for injured workers. The costs of eliminating the unfunded liability was put on Ontario’s workers, who continue to pay a heavy price. While Teahen celebrates reducing employer premiums over the past four years, injured workers paid the bill.
Teahen also celebrated a new rate framework as another legacy marker. While some changes over the past four years have been positive, troubling aspects of the old system remain- and are now set in stone. The elimination of the penalties and rebates system was a step in the right direction, because it essentially incentivized the manipulation of claims, as hiding injuries could bag employers larger rebates. But what still remains is the experience ratings system, which means benefits can go up and down depending on an employer’s claims record. If a company has fewer claims, they pay less in premiums, but if claims go up, they pay more. But this doesn’t stop employers from trying to suppress claims. In Harry Arthurs’ 2011 report, he noted examples of worker intimidation and harassment on the part of employers, trying to discourage claims, and concluded experience rating had to be dismantled unless the WSIB could establish it was not being misused by employers. But these recommendations weren’t followed and experience rating remains, another insurance concept embedded in the WSIB’s process that hurts workers.
Finally, Teahen lauds the WSIB as a leader in return to work. For many workers, going back to work is a welcome and realistic option. But for workers with permanent injuries, the story is decidedly different. And despite the WSIB’s upbeat statistics claiming a vast majority of workers find re-employment, research shows that nearly 50% of workers with permanent injuries do not, and that many end up living below the poverty line. Other workers are pressured to go back to work when they are not fully ready, which may exacerbate their injuries or cause new health issues. Teahen’s rosy picture leaves out problematic details and realities for injured workers returning to work.
As the WSIB looks for a new leader, there are lessons to be learned from Teahen’s tenure. Working people need someone guided by the perspectives and experiences of injured workers, who can address WSIB’s substantial gaps, and create a system with compassion and respect for the very people the system serves.