By Willy Noiles, President of Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups
Injured workers and supporters will rally at Queen’s Park on June 1st to commemorate Injured Workers’ Day. This year, our voices are raised to fight back against the epidemic of precarious, unsafe and toxic work, coupled with the severe austerity agenda that has taken over the administration of the workers’ compensation system.
My story of fighting begins from my time working at a temp agency. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and was working about 30 hours in a job that was in the field for which I had studied but because there were student loans to pay off, I signed on with a large temp agency to try and earn extra money to pay those loans off as quickly as possible. It would turn out to be the stupidest decision I made as one early June day back in 2000, I was called at 8 a.m. and asked if I could be at work at a flower factory by 8:30-9 a.m.
A complete lack of any health and safety advice or training played a key role as there was a slippery floor and many skids, trailer hitches and other obstacles, like hoses, that would directly contribute to my accident that occurred just an hour into that day.
As a result of that accident, I would end up with a shattered left knee, broken left ankle and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), which rates higher on the McGill Pain Index than cancer pain. CRPS also leads to other changes such as atrophy and increased sensitivity. In my case, it meant that after 10 months of rehab, and frequent walking since, my left quad muscles never regained their strength. It was almost two years before I could get out of scrub pants and return to denim. There was a year in which even my comforter could wake me up screaming in the middle of the night. And 17 years later, there are many days where just walking from the bedroom to the bathroom in the next room can elicit screaming and tears. And it necessitated moving back in with my parents for a few months after the age of 30 as my previous apartment had two flights of stairs I could no longer do in the wheelchair I had to use for more than six months.
My compensation was based on the average of what I had been earning over the previous year, which meant a benefit cheque of about $185 weekly. That was all the income I had coming in until I was able to return to my regular job later in the year on a part-time basis. Despite this, I was subject to the same harassment-style tactics that the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) case managers specialize in, and was expected to return to work. As the temp agency couldn’t place me anywhere because I was in a wheelchair, I had to work in their office 16 hours a week. The fact I could not use the washroom at the office because it wasn’t accessible in any way, shape or form wasn’t an issue WSIB felt was worthy of discussion. After two months of shredding paper, the temp agency plead poverty and I was no longer required to return to work. But it meant that when I had reached maximum medical recovery 11 months after the initial accident, I was on my own. I was given a non-economic loss (NEL) award of $6,100 and told to have a nice life. There was no retraining or real compensation for what I had lost, including an offer for a full-time job in my field that came in a few days after I was released from my hospital stay, because I was just a temp employee; disposable and easily replaceable.
Every injured worker’s story is different, but we have all endured similar problems: substantial loss of pre-accident earnings, harassment and other obstacle games that WSIB likes to place in a worker’s way, depression (a well-meaning WSIB case nurse said I was lucky because I was alive and still had all my limbs, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were many days early on when I seriously believed she was wrong), feeling isolated and inadequate as we’re no longer able to do the things we used to. And while many are lucky enough to return to their job, many are not. Many of those are forced onto other social programs such as Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program, where they were never supposed to end up. They were supposed to receive benefits for as long as their injury lasts, but in WSIB’s drive to cut costs, many workers end up being injured emotionally and financially by the very agency that was supposed to be there to protect them if they got injured.
With so many workers in vulnerable and precarious positions, we cannot be silent in the face of a workers’ compensation system that is more concerned with its own bottom line than with protecting the well-being of injured workers. We need to come together and demand our right to fair compensation. This is why we gather at Queens’s Park and march down to the Ministry of Labour on June 1st.
The real roots of Injured Workers Day, June 1st, are in changes the Bill Davis government was trying to make to the workers’ compensation system in 1983. Because of pressure from injured workers and the sheer number of injured workers who turned out, MPPs ended up holding public hearings into that piece of legislation on the front steps of Queen’s Park on June 1, 1983. Some of the same injured workers and their allies who pushed for those hearings on the front lawn of Queen’s Park in 1983 still join in today.
This year, we take to the streets with a focus on some of the workers whose toxic and unsafe work environments have injured them or made them sick – sometimes terminally so. And yet their claims are still being denied by the WSIB. These segments of workers include the miners exposed to McIntyre Power Aluminum dust, as well as a contingent of workers exposed to hazards at the Peterborough General Electric factory. Also present will be a group of healthcare workers who are dealing with an epidemic of violence in their workplace, and struggling with the WSIB for recognition. The healthcare workers will be supported en masse by their union, CUPE Ontario, whose entire convention will be out at the rally.
All of the above organizing shows us that although many of us were put through the emotional and financial wringer by our workplace accidents and our subsequent battles with WSIB, we end up emerging stronger for it. Strong enough to advocate for ourselves and others and strong enough to take to cycling from Ottawa to Toronto for the third year. And strong enough to campaign for real changes to the provision of compensation and administration by the WSIB in the 2018 provincial election.
We hope to see you on the front lawn of Queen’s Park at 11:30 a.m. June 1st.