Injured Workers' Day: Support shouldn't come in half-measures

| June 1, 2015
Photo: Flickr/Bob Jagendorf

On a -45 degree day in January 2014, Paul was driving down Ontario's eastbound 407 highway on his way to make a delivery, when his vehicle skidded on a patch of black ice and slid into a guard rail.

The company truck he was driving was totalled. At first Paul could not even see or hear his assistant because the man, who had been sitting in the passenger seat, was completely obscured by the wreckage.

Ultimately though, it was Paul, not his passenger, who sustained serious injuries and was left unable to work for over a year. In that time, Paul has received only one cheque -- a couple of weeks' worth of compensation from the Workers' Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

"It's so hard for me, all my reserve money is gone," said Paul, who asked that his last name not be used in this article.

Paul and his wife have two young children and a six-month-old baby. Since his accident, the entire family has been living on Paul's wife's maternity leave payments. Luckily, when they were no longer able to afford their apartment, the family was able to move in with Paul's mother, or else they would have been out on the street.

"I want to go back to work, but I have to find a job where I don't have to lift or move around too much. Even sometimes when my kids want to go to the park, I can't go with them because my back is in pain," explained Paul, who says that he can barely move unless he receives a pain relief injection every couple of weeks.

Though the WSIB has deemed Paul recovered enough to work, he still suffers from severe pain and is unable to return to his former job, which requires a lot of heavy lifting. Paul has a fracture in his groin that will likely require surgery, which would add several months to his recovery time.

In what observers report has become a common practice, the WSIB has ruled that Paul is not entitled to further compensation because they believe his injury is being caused by a pre-existing condition called degenerative disk disease. Paul says he had absolutely no symptoms of that disease before the accident. 

These days Paul spends a lot of his time going to doctors. He says he has seven doctors, one of whom is a psychiatrist who has diagnosed Paul with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He still wakes up in a cold sweat from nightmares of the crash, and he cannot drive for long periods of time without having to pull over.

"The psychiatrist told me, 'You are sick, I can see you're in a lot of pain,'" said Paul. When Paul originally filed a WSIB claim, he had not received a psychiatric examination and doctors had not yet found the fracture in his groin. The Board has been updated on Paul's medical conditions and he has even been examined by a WSIB psychiatrist -- a practice that advocates say has become more common in recent years, as the Board is increasingly reluctant to accept the medical opinions of physicians who are treating injured workers, such as Paul's own psychiatrist. But he has yet to hear back from the Board.

"Up to now, nothing is coming through, they aren't saying anything," said Paul. "We are playing a waiting game." 

If Paul's claim is denied, he'll have one more opportunity to appeal the decision within the WSIB and then wait times can be up to two years if he wants to have his case brought before the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal.  

According to injured worker advocates, Paul's case is more the rule than the exception in Ontario's compensation system. That is why, on June 1, Paul will rally with hundreds of other workers like himself in front of Queen's Park for Injured Workers' Day. 

'A day when injured workers stormed the sky'

For over 30 years, June 1 has been observed by injured workers in Ontario, and more recently in other parts of the country, as a day to celebrate the gains made through collective action and to demand justice for injured workers.

The date was chosen to commemorate June 1, 1983, when over 3,000 injured workers showed up for a public hearing on Ontario's workers' compensation system, forcing the government committee to conduct the hearing on the steps of the Legislature.

"It was a day when injured workers stormed the sky," recalls Orlando Buonastella, a community legal worker with Injured Workers' Consultants, a legal aid clinic that specializes in workers' compensation claims. "You should have seen the faces of the MPPs, they had never seen such an overflow of people. They just didn't know what to do."

At the time, a law was being proposed that would have eliminated life-long pensions for the permanently disabled. Injured workers came from all around the province to tell the committee what a bad idea that was, and the committee listened.

"For one day, the injured workers held court because it was no longer about government, it was no longer about procedure, it was no longer about the routine," said Buonastella. "The standing committee was overwhelmed by the passion of the people. It was a true people's expression of angst, and desire for better future, and a proposal for change." 

Since then, June 1 has became a day for injured workers to give voice to their hopes and concerns. 

"That was probably the highest moment of reform for the injured workers' movement," said Buonastella, who cited several positive changes that were made in the early 1980's, including the establishment of the independent Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal, an occupational disease panel, and the Office of the Worker Advisor. 

However, Buonastella and other advocates say that many of those gains have been eroded through clawbacks and austerity over the last 30 years.

Advocates say that the Ontario Board has become particularly hostile to injured workers while under the leadership of the current WSIB Chair David Marshall. Appointed by the McGuinty Liberal government, Marshall has made it the chief priority to eliminate the Board's unfunded liability -- the amount of money that it theoretically owes injured workers for future claims but does not currently have.

"It's harder and harder to talk to the bureaucracy," said Buonastella. "In the past, you were able to have a conversation with the Workers' Compensation Board, it still listened to people and looked at the merit and justice of different situations. Right now, with a few exceptions, it's like talking to a brick wall."

"It's frustrating for the people that are advocating on behalf of injured workers but the injured worker feels it the most, obviously. It leads to not only physical injury but mental illness," he added.

This is precisely what happened to Paul, who says that being dragged through the mazes of the claims process has only worsened his mental illness. But the silver lining -- if there is one -- is that Paul has been able to find a common cause with other injured workers.

According to Buonastella, that's what June 1 is all about. 

"On June 1, we always remind the people of Ontario that injured workers are ignored, but they are not invisible," said Buonastella. "It allows us to remember and bring forward the needs, the aspirations, and the contributions of injured workers who are still out for justice."

For more of rabble's coverage on injured workers, go here, here, and here.

Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. 

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