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Injured workers falling deeper into poverty

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He can’t collect employment insurance or workers’ compensation benefits. 

He’s on the verge of selling his house. Spent $60,000 on his line of credit. $7,000 on his credit cards. And he owes a friend $3,000.

“Because the time since they cut me off and now, this eat up all my savings and my credit,” said Rene Pineta, an injured worker.

Two years ago, Pineta suffered injuries to his wrists, shoulder and back in a workplace accident. 

“At this point I have no income,” said Pineta. “My employer is refusing to pay me or give me my record of employment.”

So he can’t apply for employment insurance benefits. And the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) doesn’t believe his injuries are permanent so they cut him off his benefits.

He suffers from major depression, needs surgery on both wrists and still can’t return to his former job.

Sadly, Pineta’s situation is not uncommon. 

Workers who no longer qualify for WSIB or employment insurance benefits, but are unable to return to work because of their injuries.

Dumped into the welfare system and forced to survive on Canada Pension Plan (CPP) disability benefits or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), after they’ve exhausted all their personal financial resources.

“I feel like there are some criminals in the system that need to get out for crimes against injured workers,” said Airissa Gemma, community legal worker, Toronto Injured Workers’ Advocacy Group.

“We need to fire (WSIB President and CEO) Marshall. Get rid of the Minister of Labour. Because enough is enough.”

A couple of years ago, Gemma said she woke up and realized she didn’t know what the system was about any more.

“It’s certainly not about injured workers,” she said. “This is workers’ compensation Ontario style.”

An approach that leaves injured workers twisting in the wind.

Gemma recalled a case where the WSIB approved a 60-year-old personal support worker’s application for benefits when she injured her thumbs, only to turn around later on and reverse their decision, saying the woman’s injuries were age rather than work related.

In another instance, a 66-year-old construction worker who developed shoulder problems was also told by the WSIB that his degenerative injury was age rather than work related and wouldn’t receive any benefits.

“We’ve never seen our compensation system being dismantled the way it is under Dalton McGuinty and David Marshall,” said Peter Page, president, Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups (ONIWG).

“It’s our compensation system and should remain in the public realm (instead) of being divided up and given out to private insurance companies so they can make a profit on our backs.”

On the backs of workers who’ve sacrificed their bodies - and in many cases their lives - over the course of their careers.

“It’s a sad thing that we still need to be out here in the cold,” said Wendy Neilson, London & St. Thomas Injured Workers Group.

“Ontario workers are suffering out there. Families are in poverty”

Neilson sees injured workers losing their homes. Marital breakdowns. Children going to school hungry. 

Now 18, Nike Nazemi, has been fighting for workers’ compensation since she was 11-years-old. When her mother was injured, she received no compensation because she wasn’t covered by the WSIB.

“I don’t want any family member or injured worker to go through what my family and all of you people have gone through,” said Nazemi.

As youth delegate to ONIWG, Nazemi said her goal is to empower the youth to be the catalyst for change so present and future generations can go to work with the assurance that they will be protected in the event of an injury.

Rather than sitting idly by watching the government renege on the historic compromise made in 1913, when workers gave up the right to sue their employer in exchange for compensation benefits.

Last Friday, many labour and injured workers’ groups came together outside the Ministry of Labour for the annual injured workers’ Christmas rally with the shared purpose of saving their compensation system.

“We know that you are sinking deeper into poverty every day,” said Nancy Hutchison, OFL Secretary-Treasurer.

“We are concerned about further reductions to your benefits. And we can’t let that happen.”

Every day, workers are injured. Some will never work again.

“Does that mean that their lives should be over?” asked NDP MPP Peter Tabuns.

“We have to fight for the restoration of a system that gives people a decent life and for a system that protects workers in the workplace.”

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