Workers Comp Is a Right!

Christine Nugent is spokesperson for the Barrie District Injured Workers Group

The Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups (ONIWG) has initiated campaigns based on many discussions among injured workers and their families on how to tackle the attacks in Ontario on their rights. The Workers Comp Is a Right! campaign was launched over three years ago and it deals with a couple of things that are really relevant today during the pandemic. One is the issue of deeming which is the practice of cutting injured workers and their families off of benefits because the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), which is mandated to provide no fault insurance for as long as an injury lasts, actually does not follow that mandate. They cut workers off, declare that they can return to work even when their medical practitioner says they are not fit to work. They use their own medical department to do this. We call them "paper doctors." Recently a member of the legislature from the NDP has put forward a private member's bill to end the practice. It has taken us a long time to get this far. Ontario injured workers have brought their concerns to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; that deeming is a violation of workers' rights.

As soon as the pandemic started many workers lost their jobs. Even under these conditions this practice of deeming didn't change. Injured workers were still being told that they had to go back to work, even at their own workplace which could have been contaminated, closed or unsafe. In many cases there wasn't work there for an injured worker to go to so deeming put them on a path of poverty, cut off benefits and forced onto social programs like Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program.

What is really important now is the issue of presumption. Under the pandemic if a worker contracts COVID-19 or if a family member gets COVID-19 passed on from a worker, then it must be presumed that this is an occupational disease and recognized as such. The firefighters fought for years on the issue of cancer. Now it is presumed to be an occupational disease. No one, especially essential workers, should have to prove that they got COVID-19 at their workplace -- but that is what is being done. Claims are treated on a case-by-case basis and there are thousands of them. And those are just the workers who know that they can and should file a claim. Thousands of workers who should be making claims are not. Employers have a legal responsibility to report and to inform workers of their rights. Employers' past practice of suppressing claims to avoid increases in premiums remains during the pandemic.

Because of the suppression and because we do not have an educated workforce on these matters, especially with 70 per cent of workers not unionized, thousands of workers are left to fend for themselves. Even in the unionized workplaces there is sometimes confusion about when a workplace has declared an outbreak because information is suppressed by employers who don't want to be shut down. When you have decision-making in the hands of the employers and government workers are not able to get their bearings.

Right now, in the Ontario legislature, besides the private member's bill on ending deeming, there are two others, one to guarantee essential workers have access to presumptive coverage for WSIB mental health benefits and another for WSIB coverage for workers in residential care facilities or group homes. Many of these workers, shockingly, are not covered by WSIB. Thirty percent of employers are exempt from WSIB in Ontario.

The actions of the Ford government ever since they were elected have been focused on making sure Ontario is "open for business." One of the first things they did was lower WSIB premiums for employers. Then, the following year, they lowered them again. We're talking about billions of dollars going back into the pockets of the companies. Bill 238, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Amendment Act, 2021 just passed last week. It ensures the profits of the companies in Ontario, by once again restricting increases in premiums. So how does that affect injured workers or workers who have become ill from COVID-19? You can't continually give handouts to the employers and have a system that is going to serve the needs of injured workers and their families, and that's the purpose of compensation for the last hundred years. You can't sue your employer. It's no fault insurance guaranteed for as long as the injury lasts and that's the part that doesn't happen, through deeming.

I'll give one example. We had a big outbreak of one of the new variants of COVID-19 at a nursing home in Barrie with many deaths. Many workers, long-haulers, do not get well. If they test negative the WSIB returns them to work, even when their doctor says they are not fit to work. Benefits are cut. On presumption there has been a big fight in Ontario, for miners made ill with McIntyre Powder, for workers at GE in Peterborough, rubber workers and others. We say in those cases and in the pandemic every worker who gets sick should be compensated.

I also have to mention the precautionary principle. One of our members is a SARS nurse. She was injured in 2003 and has been ill and on compensation since then. She wants everyone to know that one of the strongest recommendations of the report on SARS was that the precautionary principle should be followed so, for instance, if there is a possibility that the disease is airborne then protect the workers accordingly with N95 masks. Since the beginning of the pandemic the precautionary principle has not been followed.

(Photos:WF, Injured Workers Online)

This article was published in

April 28, 2021 - No. 35

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