Injured workers fighting for compensation and care
Eugene Lefrancois, Steve Mantis, and Janet Paterson are injured workers living in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Superior. Lefrancois is the president of the Thunder Bay and District Injured Workers Support Group, while Mantis is that group’s treasurer. And Paterson is the president of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups. Scott Neigh interviewed them about the issues faced by injured workers in Ontario, and about their involvement in peer support, public education, and advocacy.
Ontario’s first law related to the compensation of workers injured on the job passed in 1886, though it still left the process largely in the hands of the courts. As industrialization and therefore the number of accidents grew, as juries increasingly held employers responsible for injuries, and as the labour movement organized around the issue, the groundwork was laid for a more substantial change. The 1914 reforms, based on an inquiry by Chief Justice of Ontario, Sir William Meredith, saw workers give up their right to sue in return for an administrative, no-fault system paid by employers that was, at least in theory, supposed to ensure speedy and reliable payments for as long as an injured worker was disabled. Today, that system is called the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB), though for many years it was the Workers Compensation Board.
While in many ways a gain for workers, the system since the changes in 1914 has – as one might predict – served as a new terrain for the struggle between workers and employers, rather than ending it. In broad strokes, employers and their political representatives have done whatever they can over the years to minimize costs and therefore the supports that the system provides, even when that harms working people, and workers have done their best to push for improvements in the system.
The Thunder Bay Injured Workers Support Group was founded in 1984, in the context of one iteration of that ongoing struggle. The Conservative government of the day was attempting to pass legislation that would have changed things for the worse in how permanently disabled workers in Ontario – then numbering in excess of 100,000 – were compensated. Mobilization by injured workers and their allies across the province, including in Thunder Bay, beat back those changes. But the struggle continued. Legislation passed by another Conservative government in the late 1990s, and regulations issued by a subsequent Liberal government, remade the system in important ways, to the detriment of workers.
The Thunder Bay group does a lot of different things. Mantis has been involved right from the start, and he said, “We first had to educate ourselves. And we did that really by telling our stories to each other.” And decades later, “peer support and education” remain core commitments for the group. They hold regular sessions – originally in-person, currently on Zoom – where workers can come to talk about what they are facing, to socialize, and to learn. The sessions regularly feature expert speakers on related issues.
“But during the session,” Mantis emphasized, “we’re there to support each other. And it’s not unusual in the middle of a session, someone will share that they’re in crisis. And the session kind of immediately turns to, how can we help you? What can we do to help alleviate that crisis?”
Outside of such moments of crisis, the peer support and social gatherings also serve an important role in addressing the intense isolation experienced by many injured workers. Mantis said that through coming together in these ways, injured workers often “gain some of their confidence back and see how they’re positioned, in relation to the big power – the Workers Compensation Board (now the WSIB) – who has so much power over them, and their ability to pay their bills and feed their families. As people learn more, they get more confidence, they see they’re not alone, they see they’re facing these barriers together. And we’re better able then to meet these challenges on an individual basis. And sometimes, sowing us together on a collective basis to face these barriers really in a systemic way.”
This move from individual experiences to collective issues is an important one for the group. Mantis said, “As we experience and hear the stories, and we see the similarities, we begin to pick some of those issues to focus on.” This allows them to identify systemic problems with workplace compensation in Ontario, and then engage in advocacy, lobbying, and other activities to push for improvements by the WSIB and the provincial government.
The issues they deal with cover a broad range. One specific case, for instance, involves construction workers who were part of a re-build at a paper mill in Dryden, Ontario, 20 years ago, who were exposed to chemicals during the work and are experiencing high rates of illness. Mantis said, “We’ve been working with this group of workers to get public attention around this, to get them both medical treatment and financial compensation for the losses they’ve experienced. And then also to try to hold the employer accountable. Because the mill managers knew that this was a risk. And they chose to expose these workers instead of protecting them from the toxic exposures. And we thought, this kind of thing should not happen.” In addition to helping this group of workers demand accountability, the Thunder Bay group is also helping them connect with workers facing related issues elsewhere in the province.
Another important issue that injured workers in Ontario currently face is related to the cost-of-living increments that the WSIB has used in recent years. According to Paterson, the increments are consistently lower than, for instance, Statistics Canada calculates. She said that they have filed a court case demanding increments that better reflect the actual impact of inflation on workers, which will likely be heard later this year, and “we are asking the court to rule on this.”
Paterson said that the inadequacy of workplace compensation for many workers was particularly stark during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. She said, “With COVID, you weren’t going to get on the bus now to go get your meds, for instance. You’d have to take a taxi.” That was just one example of the ways in which the early pandemic imposed “more costs” on many injured workers. She said that groups such as veterans, seniors, and recipients of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program – the province’s social assistance systems for general welfare and disability, respectively – received at least minimal additional support payments during the worst period of the pandemic. But the WSIB refused to do the same for injured workers.
More generally, the Thunder Bay group and other injured worker advocacy efforts push back however they can against the many rules, regulations, and procedures at the WSIB that they say make it very difficult for workers to get what they need in terms of both care and compensation.
According to Lefrancois, the underlying problem is “the whole attitude of putting profits before people.” He argued that one way this shows up is the way the system incentivizes the underreporting of injuries. Employers pay a premium each year to the WSIB in order to be able to operate. If there are no injuries in their workplace and workers make no claims on the system over that time, then the employer gets a portion back.
Lefrancois said, “Now you have a cash incentive, not for the worker but for the employer, not to report injuries,” so many employers take steps to “discourage claims.” He continued, “Claim suppression by employers has been happening since they introduced rebate back for your premium. That, I think, is what dogs the injured workers against the employers. … It’s all money, it’s all profit. And the governments have bought into the employers.”
Mantis said that in contrast, “We’re trying to make … the WSIB worker-friendly.” They want it to be an organization that is fundamentally oriented towards offering “support” and “help” – both “financial” and “other support” – to injured workers who need it, which he said it currently is not.
He continued, “There [are] many changes that happen in your life as a result [of an injury], and we think the compensation board should be there to help you through that. What we have experienced, and many others have experienced, is that rather than help, they are adding insult to injury. They create a stigma that workers that are coming looking for help are looking for a free ride, or looking for a handout. Maybe they go further – they might be ‘scammers’ or ‘malingerers.’ This attitude that happens within the compensation board … that oftentimes spreads into the larger community creates real problems for workers who are struggling to adjust to now living with a disability. So we’re saying, hey, we want to heal, we want to get better, but we’re being treated as if we are liars and scammers.”
“Many employers don’t want people with a disability or injury working for them,” Mantis said. “We end up feeling like we’re damaged goods that they just want to get rid of and be replaced by young healthy workers.” He said that many employers are unwilling to engage in “modifying the work in a real way, to change the design of work so it can accommodate people with a disability. … They’re actually required to do that under human rights [legislation], but there’s no-one really monitoring that, so the situation runs into trouble, and it’s the workers who are usually blamed for that. And as a result can be cut off benefits entirely. … The implication is, we really don’t want to work, we’re not trying hard enough. But in fact we’re not the ones who control the design of the job and the management of the worksite.”
He concluded, “In many cases … [employers are] not providing the necessary accommodations to accommodate our disabilities that were caused by [them] not taking that preventative action in the first place, at the workplace. So we’re blamed for any of the shortcomings of the system, and that’s causing that insult to injury, making our disabilities worse and worse.”
According to Paterson, additional barriers and stigma can happen through the medical system. Some workers, particularly those who need support with pain management, face intense stigma when they seek care. Beyond that, she said, “the doctor isn’t listened to” by the system in many cases, and lots of workers are forced to appeal to get access to the compensation and care that their doctors say that they need. The appeal process can take up to a decade, and with that delay, she said, “your hopes of recovery are very slim, if there are any at all. So there’s a huge cost involved, and I’m not talking a dollar and cents cost” in terms of impact on the injured worker’s life and family.
The Thunder Bay group, in conjunction with allied groups across the province, are consistently pushing for changes in both legislation and policy related to injured workers. They work with researchers to build evidence in support of those changes. They regularly meet with WSIB staff and management, as well as both supportive and less supportive MPPs – Paterson said that even the latter is useful because “it’s important to make certain that they can’t say they didn’t know” about the issues.
According to Mantis, another important ongoing initiative is supporting an NDP private members bill around “‘deeming,’ which is the issue that if the WSIB says you’re ready to go back to work, they then assume you’re getting your full pay and you’re cut off benefits. So they’re deeming you to have a job when in fact you don’t have a job. This legislation, if it were to pass, would say you really have to base the lost wages on the actual lost wages, as opposed to this make believe.”
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