We All Need to Work Together Against These Drastic Changes Affecting Workers and Workers' Benefits Across Canada

Steve Mantis is Chair of the Research Action Committee of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups(ONIWG).

Workers' Forum: What are your views on the Ford government's recent announcement about upcoming legislation to allow the WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) to distribute what it calls "surplus funds" to employers?

Steve Mantis: The Ontario government is denying workers medical care and financial benefits and is sending their financial savings back to big corporations. It is the exact opposite of what our public system was designed to do. It was designed to help workers when they became injured or were made ill on the job. The system now is being designed to be a revenue generator for corporations.

We need to understand that it is an attack on all of us. Some workers may think that they are okay if they are not injured but this is just one of many attacks that workers are experiencing around not only their health and safety, but their income, their employment benefits, their ability to make an honest living in a safe environment.

At the same time, we are in the middle of a pandemic and the Ontario government refuses to recognize in a meaningful way that transmission happens at work. To prevent that, we need to give workers legislated sick days so that they can protect themselves and others when they are at risk. But the government is saying No!, that corporations cannot afford that. So, once again, workers who are at high risk and are often in precarious situations, along with their families and communities, are left to face the most dire health consequences because of the pandemic.

And this is happening across the board. Recently, we had Karen Messing join our regular injured workers session in Thunder Bay. She is a retired professor from UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal). She is one of the best researchers on health and safety, a biologist and ergonomist, and has done a lot of work with Quebec unions and women's groups. Her focus is on women's health and safety at work. She gave us an update on the law that just passed in Quebec around occupational health and safety, which goes so far as to attack joint health and safety committees, which is just crazy. Workers’ Forum was the only publication where we could go to get some English language information on this legislation. 

In British Columbia, the Ombudsperson has just put out a report about how the policies of the compensation board in that province are putting workers at risk, particularly of re-injury and poverty, which we see happening all the time.

There's not a lot of research. But what we have seen in different jurisdictions around the world, from Australia to British Columbia, Ontario, Washington State, is that somewhere between 35 and 40 per cent of workers who have had a serious injury and are forced back to work, get hurt again at work and become further disabled. The Ombudsperson's report in British Columbia puts it clearly: the doctor says that this worker cannot go back to work, that it is unsafe, yet the compensation board says "Well, we think this worker can go back to work, doing light duty," and they are cut off benefits. So the worker has to consider either to go back or to lose his or her apartment or home and become homeless. So they go back to work and that is where that high injury rate happens. Then after it has happened, you can be embroiled, as in the case that the Ombudsperson in British Columbia studies, for five years, if you can stand it, in an appeal system to be able to get a fair decision at the end.

Going back to Ontario, the compensation board has saved $2 billion a year. They have reduced the amount of money in their total expenses by 50 per cent. They spend $2 billion less now than they spent 10 years ago. This has been progressive, it has taken them since 2010 to slowly make more and more cuts. They went through a whole process to identify where they were spending the most money and then they put policies in place "to stop the bleeding" as they would say. For example, different groups were targeted, such as women, francophones, immigrants, who they said were getting benefits too frequently. They had strategies to reduce the benefits these people were receiving.

They have really targeted workers with serious injuries as the biggest expense of this system, because they are on benefits longer. The impact of their injury goes on for a long time, even a lifetime.

In Ontario, there are about 20,000 new workers who suffer a lifetime injury every year. Around 350,000 people put in a claim every year. Research shows that large numbers of people never file a claim, especially precarious workers who have no job security, who just live on the edge and do not have a good employment situation. They are afraid that if they make a claim, their job could be at risk.

So every year, they have had a surplus. They used to spend around $4.3 or $4.5 billion a year. Now they are spending half of that. They have surplus revenues coming in, and that becomes their reserve fund. And now their reserve fund is about $40 billion. And from their calculation, with their own internal auditor and actuary, they determined that they have about $33 billion in future liabilities. This means that for people like me and all the other injured workers who are on the longer-term benefits, if they had to pay us all out today, it would cost $33 billion. They have about $7 billion more than they need.

They play with those numbers, which change a lot because a lot of that money is in stock markets. So when stocks go up and down, the amount they have in reserve goes up and down. This is what caused the crisis in Ontario that happened 10 years ago when the government said: "You have to make sure you have all the money in the bank and you don't right now." That was right after the stock market crash in 2008-2009. The money has all come back since the stocks were down almost 50 per cent after the big economic collapse. The money came back but the assessment that was done in 2010 was that the financial situation was very bad, that this was a crisis. Anyone who knows how the stock market works knows that the money is going to come back. Part of the surplus they have, that $7 billion, is because the stock market is doing well. That creates revenue as well.

WF: What are the main demands that ONIWG is putting forward with regard to the plan to distribute the “surplus” to employers?

SM: ONIWG has submitted a brief, and so did a number of local activists and organizations including the Ontario Federation of Labour and a IWC Community Legal Clinic. A lot of submissions went to the government, which held a short consultation.
What we said is that we have to look after injured workers before we start sending any money to corporations and employers. Our demand is that they have to fulfill their obligations to the workers the system was set up to provide for.

We went back to our three main demands which is where you see them using these bogus policies to reduce benefits.

Number one is to listen to the treating doctor rather than ignoring and over-ruling them and putting workers at risk. The treating physician should be listened to.

The second is to stop declaring people employed when they are not. Part of that is declaring injured workers employable and then stopping benefits. They go hand in hand. We often refer to that in Ontario as 'deeming.'
The third is to stop using pre-existing conditions as a way of cutting people off benefits. That happens quite often. Once the worker has reached a kind of plateau, where they have recovered as much as can be expected, if there is any residual disability it is claimed that it's because something else happened, not related to the work injury.

WF: What would you like to say in conclusion?

SM: We all need to work together to oppose these drastic changes that are happening to workers and to workers' benefits across Canada.

This article was published in

October 13, 2021 - No. 94

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