Injured workers fighting for healthcare, benefits and dignity

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Image: Modified from an image that is used with permission of Injured Workers Action for Justice.

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh interviews Sang-Hun Mun and Hannah Alexander. They are members of Injured Workers Action for Justice, a group of injured workers who are pushing to change the workers' compensation system in Ontario so that it starts to actually meet the needs of injured workers, particularly when it comes to healthcare.

All it takes is an instant for everything to change. One moment, you're on top of things. Sure, life can be stressful, it can be hard work, but you have a job that's keeping a roof over head and food on the table. Things are okay. The next moment, something happens. Maybe you fall. Maybe you're in an accident with a car or some other kind of machinery. Maybe something dangerous spills where it shouldn't. Or maybe it isn't a moment -- maybe it's something repeated and repeated, over and over and over every day, that takes its toll on your body until you can no longer do what you used to do. However it happened, you've been injured on the job, and things aren't okay any more.

In most jurisdictions, when something like this happens, there is some kind of workers' compensation system that, at least in theory, is supposed to help workers get through it. The details vary, but in most places, at some point along the line workers gave up the right to sue their employer as an individual in exchange for a system that imposes a collective liability on employers -- that is, employers pay premiums into a system that in turn is supposed to pay costs related to healthcare and also to replace lost wages for injured workers. In Ontario, a system along these lines has existed since 1914 -- formerly called the Workers' Compensation Board, and then reorganized as the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (or WSIB) in 1998.

Sang-Hun Mun and Hannah Alexander are both injured workers. In Sang-Hun's case, it was a workplace fall in 2005. In Hannah's case, she was working as a personal support worker when a client, disoriented by his Alzheimer's disease, knocked her over and injured her. They are also both members of Injured Workers Action for Justice.

The reason why Injured Workers Action for Justice exists, and why there are many injured workers groups across the province, is that even though the WSIB is supposed to meet the needs of injured workers, a lot of people who get hurt on the job in Ontario have the experience that it does not. Many find that the health benefits that they need to recover are denied outright or ended too soon. Many experience being pushed to return to work when they are simply not able to do so. Of course, when they don't do so (because they can't), they are at risk of being cut off benefits. Moreover, many have their need for more care or more time off fully supported by the professional assessments of the health care providers who are caring for them, and yet that is not sufficient for the WSIB. Advocates argue that the WSIB seems to be more concerned with reducing employer premiums than with supporting workers. With the system as it currently functions, it is not unusual for injured workers to live in poverty, to be pushed into experiencing mental health issues, or even to end up homeless.

Earlier this year, the IAVGO Community Legal Clinic -- a non-profit that specializes in representing injured workers, and that also provides space for Injured Workers Action for Justice to meet -- published two reports exploring in detail how the WSIB has gotten worse since a change in its business model in 2010. Bad Medicine: A Report on the WSIB's Transformation of its Health Care Spending analyzed the WSIB's own data and showed that the changes in health care benefits over that time have cut costs by reducing, restricting, and reorganizing benefits to the detriment of injured workers. And No Evidence: The Decisions of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board examines rulings on appeals of WSIB decisions, and concludes that the Board regularly disregards the health care professionals who are actually treating injured workers and that "in order to get its financial house in order, the Board is disregarding the safety, health and dignity of workers who are injured on the job."

The main campaign from Injured Workers Action for Justice is demanding improvements in how the WSIB deals with health care. They want the legislation governing the Board to follow the lead of the analagous institution in Quebec, and to commit to accepting the recommendations of treating physicians, both in terms of what treatments are necessary and in terms of determinig when and how it is safe for workers to go back to work.

Over the years, the group has taken a number of different kinds of actions to push this agenda forward. They have regularly lobbied the WSIB and the Ministry of Labour. Every June 1st, they publicly mark Injured Workers Day -- this year, it involved a campout by injured workers outside the provincial legislature at Queen's Park in Toronto. This year they have also been placing increased emphasis on lobbying and pressuring individual MPPs, and they have plans to take that pressure to Premier Kathleen Wynne in November.

In their actions, the group is keen to communicate to other workers, to trade union activists, and to the general public that injured workers' issues are relevant to all of us -- most of us are just one instant, one accident, away from having to face the WSIB to get what we need. And they particularly encourage other injured workers to get involved. They say that for themselves, the group has been very important, partly because it is filled with other injured workers who understand what they're going through, but even more so, because by giving them a place to take action together it has helped them feel a renewed sense of capacity, dignity, and power.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

Talking Radical Radio has been nominated for a Hamilton Independent Media Award. If you like the show, please vote for Scott Neigh under the category of "Best Journalist – Social Justice and Human Rights" before November 8!

Image: Modified from an image that is used with permission of Injured Workers Action for Justice.

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