For years now, injured workers and frontline advocates have been sounding the alarm that Ontario’s Workplace Safety & Insurance Board (WSIB) has been “getting its financial house in order” through austerity and cost-cutting measures. Whether it be from slashing compensation for lost wages, denying healthcare treatment and medication, or refusing to recognize mental health injuries, the cuts have come squarely on the backs of injured workers.
But resilient and strong in the face of injustice, injured workers across the province are rising up. The Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups (ONIWG) – an umbrella organization of injured worker groups throughout Ontario – is launching a province-wide campaign called Workers’ Comp is a Right, to call for a system that treats them with dignity and respect, and that provides them with the compensation to which they are legitimately entitled.
This province-wide campaign has three concrete demands:
1) No cuts based on phantom jobs.
2) Listen to injured workers’ treating healthcare professionals.
3) Stop cutting benefits based on “pre-existing conditions”.
These demands address some of the WSIB’s primary methods of cutting benefits and sending injured workers into poverty.
A broken workers’ compensation system
In implementing its austerity agenda, the WSIB has adopted the mindset of a private insurance provider. Just as insurance companies look to deny and cut claims wherever they can, the WSIB has become rigid, aggressive, and adversarial in trying to find ways to deny or terminate injured workers’ claims.
For injured workers, the WSIB’s austerity agenda means thousands of people every year are forced into poverty. A comprehensive study published in 2015 found that 46% of injured workers with a permanent disability from their work injury were at or near the poverty line, with 9% living in deep poverty. 38% of them had been unable to return to employment since they were injured, and yet the WSIB cut their benefits.
In addition to elevated poverty levels, a disproportionately high rate of injured workers also suffer from an array of mental health struggles following their injuries. A 2012 study found that nearly 50% of injured workers experienced symptoms of depression, while 37% had symptoms of anxiety. In many cases, dealing with the WSIB itself causes these mental health issues to develop. Many ONIWG members report that they are unable to even open mail or answer phone calls from the WSIB because of the intense anxiety and panic-like symptoms that are provoked by any interactions with the system.
Downloading costs onto public systems
Another important consequence of the WSIB’s cuts is that the costs of work injuries are being offloaded onto public systems. A common misconception is that the workers’ compensation is funded by taxpayers. In fact, this is not true; the system is funded entirely by employer premiums and the WSIB’s own investments.
Every year, however, thousands of injured workers are forced onto publicly funded systems like Ontario Works (OW), the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and CPP-Disability, when they are cut off of WSIB benefits. Similarly, when the WSIB refuses to pay for healthcare treatment for injured workers, those costs are shifted onto OHIP.
The reality is that work injuries are becoming a public burden precisely because the WSIB is trying to find ways to skirt its responsibilities.
Shamefully, those with the most severe and complex injuries, including mental health injuries, are the ones who bear the brunt of the WSIB’s cost-cutting measures. The reason is simple: these injuries are the most expensive to deal with. Instead of being seen as human beings with a legal right to compensation and care workers who need the most support are seen as costs and liabilities, and are denied help.
Workers’ Comp is a Right campaign demands
With the system having strayed so far from its mandate to support injured workers, ONIWG is launching its province-wide campaign to call for justice through three demands.
The first demand — no cuts based on phantom jobs — challenges the WSIB’s practice of “deeming.” In essence, deeming (also called “determining”) is when the WSIB pretends an injured worker has a job that they do not in fact have in reality. It then pretends that the worker is earning a salary from the non-existent job, and uses the invented salary as a justification to cut their benefits. Injured workers are frequently deemed to have phantom jobs even when they are medically unable to work, or unable to actually obtain employment. If a worker is unemployed, the WSIB will still pretend they are working and earning money, and cut their benefits accordingly.
The second demand — listen to injured workers’ treating healthcare professionals — relates to the systemic problem of the WSIB ignoring medical evidence from injured workers’ treating doctors and health providers. Injured workers are frequently forced back to work before their healthcare professionals say it is safe to do so, and denied treatment or medication prescribed by their doctors. This puts workers at risk of re-injury, prolongs their recovery, and is another means of cutting benefits.
The third demand — stop cutting benefits based on “pre-existing conditions” — calls for an end to the WSIB’s practice of blaming ongoing disabilities on “conditions” that it claims existed before the work injury. All too often, the “pre-existing conditions” that the WSIB points to never actually affected the person at all until they were injured at work. In many cases, they were never diagnosed by a doctor before the work injury, and never caused the person any symptoms – and yet the WSIB calls them the “real” source of the injury and terminates the worker’s benefits.
Despite the grim context of the workers’ compensation system in Ontario, ONIWG will not allow injured workers to be discouraged or ignored. People who are injured or made ill on the job have the right to dignity and respect, and to compensation benefits for their work injuries. With this campaign, injured workers from all corners of the province are building their collective power and demanding these rights, in full.
For more information about how to support the Workers’ Comp is a Right campaign visit their website.