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Eugene Lefran­cois, Steve Man­tis, and Janet Pater­son are injured work­ers liv­ing in Thun­der Bay, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Supe­ri­or. Lefran­cois is the pres­i­dent of the Thun­der Bay and Dis­trict Injured Work­ers Sup­port Group, while Man­tis is that group’s trea­sur­er. And Pater­son is the pres­i­dent of the Ontario Net­work of Injured Work­ers Groups. Scott Neigh inter­viewed them about the issues faced by injured work­ers in Ontario, and about their involve­ment in peer sup­port, pub­lic edu­ca­tion, and advocacy.

Ontario’s first law relat­ed to the com­pen­sa­tion of work­ers injured on the job passed in 1886, though it still left the process large­ly in the hands of the courts. As indus­tri­al­iza­tion and there­fore the num­ber of acci­dents grew, as juries increas­ing­ly held employ­ers respon­si­ble for injuries, and as the labour move­ment orga­nized around the issue, the ground­work was laid for a more sub­stan­tial change. The 1914 reforms, based on an inquiry by Chief Jus­tice of Ontario, Sir William Mered­ith, saw work­ers give up their right to sue in return for an admin­is­tra­tive, no-fault sys­tem paid by employ­ers that was, at least in the­o­ry, sup­posed to ensure speedy and reli­able pay­ments for as long as an injured work­er was dis­abled. Today, that sys­tem is called the Work­place Safe­ty Insur­ance Board (WSIB), though for many years it was the Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion Board.

While in many ways a gain for work­ers, the sys­tem since the changes in 1914 has – as one might pre­dict – served as a new ter­rain for the strug­gle between work­ers and employ­ers, rather than end­ing it. In broad strokes, employ­ers and their polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives have done what­ev­er they can over the years to min­i­mize costs and there­fore the sup­ports that the sys­tem pro­vides, even when that harms work­ing peo­ple, and work­ers have done their best to push for improve­ments in the system.

The Thun­der Bay Injured Work­ers Sup­port Group was found­ed in 1984, in the con­text of one iter­a­tion of that ongo­ing strug­gle. The Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment of the day was attempt­ing to pass leg­is­la­tion that would have changed things for the worse in how per­ma­nent­ly dis­abled work­ers in Ontario – then num­ber­ing in excess of 100,000 – were com­pen­sat­ed. Mobi­liza­tion by injured work­ers and their allies across the province, includ­ing in Thun­der Bay, beat back those changes. But the strug­gle con­tin­ued. Leg­is­la­tion passed by anoth­er Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment in the late 1990s, and reg­u­la­tions issued by a sub­se­quent Lib­er­al gov­ern­ment, remade the sys­tem in impor­tant ways, to the detri­ment of workers.

The Thun­der Bay group does a lot of dif­fer­ent things. Man­tis has been involved right from the start, and he said, We first had to edu­cate our­selves. And we did that real­ly by telling our sto­ries to each oth­er.” And decades lat­er, peer sup­port and edu­ca­tion” remain core com­mit­ments for the group. They hold reg­u­lar ses­sions – orig­i­nal­ly in-per­son, cur­rent­ly on Zoom – where work­ers can come to talk about what they are fac­ing, to social­ize, and to learn. The ses­sions reg­u­lar­ly fea­ture expert speak­ers on relat­ed issues.

But dur­ing the ses­sion,” Man­tis empha­sized, we’re there to sup­port each oth­er. And it’s not unusu­al in the mid­dle of a ses­sion, some­one will share that they’re in cri­sis. And the ses­sion kind of imme­di­ate­ly turns to, how can we help you? What can we do to help alle­vi­ate that crisis?”

Out­side of such moments of cri­sis, the peer sup­port and social gath­er­ings also serve an impor­tant role in address­ing the intense iso­la­tion expe­ri­enced by many injured work­ers. Man­tis said that through com­ing togeth­er in these ways, injured work­ers often gain some of their con­fi­dence back and see how they’re posi­tioned, in rela­tion to the big pow­er – the Work­ers Com­pen­sa­tion Board (now the WSIB) – who has so much pow­er over them, and their abil­i­ty to pay their bills and feed their fam­i­lies. As peo­ple learn more, they get more con­fi­dence, they see they’re not alone, they see they’re fac­ing these bar­ri­ers togeth­er. And we’re bet­ter able then to meet these chal­lenges on an indi­vid­ual basis. And some­times, sow­ing us togeth­er on a col­lec­tive basis to face these bar­ri­ers real­ly in a sys­temic way.”

This move from indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences to col­lec­tive issues is an impor­tant one for the group. Man­tis said, As we expe­ri­ence and hear the sto­ries, and we see the sim­i­lar­i­ties, we begin to pick some of those issues to focus on.” This allows them to iden­ti­fy sys­temic prob­lems with work­place com­pen­sa­tion in Ontario, and then engage in advo­ca­cy, lob­by­ing, and oth­er activ­i­ties to push for improve­ments by the WSIB and the provin­cial government.

The issues they deal with cov­er a broad range. One spe­cif­ic case, for instance, involves con­struc­tion work­ers who were part of a re-build at a paper mill in Dry­den, Ontario, 20 years ago, who were exposed to chem­i­cals dur­ing the work and are expe­ri­enc­ing high rates of ill­ness. Man­tis said, We’ve been work­ing with this group of work­ers to get pub­lic atten­tion around this, to get them both med­ical treat­ment and finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion for the loss­es they’ve expe­ri­enced. And then also to try to hold the employ­er account­able. Because the mill man­agers knew that this was a risk. And they chose to expose these work­ers instead of pro­tect­ing them from the tox­ic expo­sures. And we thought, this kind of thing should not hap­pen.” In addi­tion to help­ing this group of work­ers demand account­abil­i­ty, the Thun­der Bay group is also help­ing them con­nect with work­ers fac­ing relat­ed issues else­where in the province.

Anoth­er impor­tant issue that injured work­ers in Ontario cur­rent­ly face is relat­ed to the cost-of-liv­ing incre­ments that the WSIB has used in recent years. Accord­ing to Pater­son, the incre­ments are con­sis­tent­ly low­er than, for instance, Sta­tis­tics Cana­da cal­cu­lates. She said that they have filed a court case demand­ing incre­ments that bet­ter reflect the actu­al impact of infla­tion on work­ers, which will like­ly be heard lat­er this year, and we are ask­ing the court to rule on this.”

Pater­son said that the inad­e­qua­cy of work­place com­pen­sa­tion for many work­ers was par­tic­u­lar­ly stark dur­ing the ini­tial phas­es of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic. She said, With COVID, you weren’t going to get on the bus now to go get your meds, for instance. You’d have to take a taxi.” That was just one exam­ple of the ways in which the ear­ly pan­dem­ic imposed more costs” on many injured work­ers. She said that groups such as vet­er­ans, seniors, and recip­i­ents of Ontario Works and the Ontario Dis­abil­i­ty Sup­port Pro­gram – the province’s social assis­tance sys­tems for gen­er­al wel­fare and dis­abil­i­ty, respec­tive­ly – received at least min­i­mal addi­tion­al sup­port pay­ments dur­ing the worst peri­od of the pan­dem­ic. But the WSIB refused to do the same for injured workers.

More gen­er­al­ly, the Thun­der Bay group and oth­er injured work­er advo­ca­cy efforts push back how­ev­er they can against the many rules, reg­u­la­tions, and pro­ce­dures at the WSIB that they say make it very dif­fi­cult for work­ers to get what they need in terms of both care and compensation.

Accord­ing to Lefran­cois, the under­ly­ing prob­lem is the whole atti­tude of putting prof­its before peo­ple.” He argued that one way this shows up is the way the sys­tem incen­tivizes the under­re­port­ing of injuries. Employ­ers pay a pre­mi­um each year to the WSIB in order to be able to oper­ate. If there are no injuries in their work­place and work­ers make no claims on the sys­tem over that time, then the employ­er gets a por­tion back.

Lefran­cois said, Now you have a cash incen­tive, not for the work­er but for the employ­er, not to report injuries,” so many employ­ers take steps to dis­cour­age claims.” He con­tin­ued, Claim sup­pres­sion by employ­ers has been hap­pen­ing since they intro­duced rebate back for your pre­mi­um. That, I think, is what dogs the injured work­ers against the employ­ers. … It’s all mon­ey, it’s all prof­it. And the gov­ern­ments have bought into the employers.”

Man­tis said that in con­trast, We’re try­ing to make … the WSIB work­er-friend­ly.” They want it to be an orga­ni­za­tion that is fun­da­men­tal­ly ori­ent­ed towards offer­ing sup­port” and help” – both finan­cial” and oth­er sup­port” – to injured work­ers who need it, which he said it cur­rent­ly is not.

He con­tin­ued, There [are] many changes that hap­pen in your life as a result [of an injury], and we think the com­pen­sa­tion board should be there to help you through that. What we have expe­ri­enced, and many oth­ers have expe­ri­enced, is that rather than help, they are adding insult to injury. They cre­ate a stig­ma that work­ers that are com­ing look­ing for help are look­ing for a free ride, or look­ing for a hand­out. Maybe they go fur­ther – they might be scam­mers’ or malin­ger­ers.’ This atti­tude that hap­pens with­in the com­pen­sa­tion board … that often­times spreads into the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty cre­ates real prob­lems for work­ers who are strug­gling to adjust to now liv­ing with a dis­abil­i­ty. So we’re say­ing, hey, we want to heal, we want to get bet­ter, but we’re being treat­ed as if we are liars and scammers.”

Many employ­ers don’t want peo­ple with a dis­abil­i­ty or injury work­ing for them,” Man­tis said. We end up feel­ing like we’re dam­aged goods that they just want to get rid of and be replaced by young healthy work­ers.” He said that many employ­ers are unwill­ing to engage in mod­i­fy­ing the work in a real way, to change the design of work so it can accom­mo­date peo­ple with a dis­abil­i­ty. … They’re actu­al­ly required to do that under human rights [leg­is­la­tion], but there’s no-one real­ly mon­i­tor­ing that, so the sit­u­a­tion runs into trou­ble, and it’s the work­ers who are usu­al­ly blamed for that. And as a result can be cut off ben­e­fits entire­ly. … The impli­ca­tion is, we real­ly don’t want to work, we’re not try­ing hard enough. But in fact we’re not the ones who con­trol the design of the job and the man­age­ment of the worksite.”

He con­clud­ed, In many cas­es … [employ­ers are] not pro­vid­ing the nec­es­sary accom­mo­da­tions to accom­mo­date our dis­abil­i­ties that were caused by [them] not tak­ing that pre­ven­ta­tive action in the first place, at the work­place. So we’re blamed for any of the short­com­ings of the sys­tem, and that’s caus­ing that insult to injury, mak­ing our dis­abil­i­ties worse and worse.”

Accord­ing to Pater­son, addi­tion­al bar­ri­ers and stig­ma can hap­pen through the med­ical sys­tem. Some work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those who need sup­port with pain man­age­ment, face intense stig­ma when they seek care. Beyond that, she said, the doc­tor isn’t lis­tened to” by the sys­tem in many cas­es, and lots of work­ers are forced to appeal to get access to the com­pen­sa­tion and care that their doc­tors say that they need. The appeal process can take up to a decade, and with that delay, she said, your hopes of recov­ery are very slim, if there are any at all. So there’s a huge cost involved, and I’m not talk­ing a dol­lar and cents cost” in terms of impact on the injured worker’s life and family.

The Thun­der Bay group, in con­junc­tion with allied groups across the province, are con­sis­tent­ly push­ing for changes in both leg­is­la­tion and pol­i­cy relat­ed to injured work­ers. They work with researchers to build evi­dence in sup­port of those changes. They reg­u­lar­ly meet with WSIB staff and man­age­ment, as well as both sup­port­ive and less sup­port­ive MPPs – Pater­son said that even the lat­ter is use­ful because it’s impor­tant to make cer­tain that they can’t say they didn’t know” about the issues.

Accord­ing to Man­tis, anoth­er impor­tant ongo­ing ini­tia­tive is sup­port­ing an NDP pri­vate mem­bers bill around “‘deem­ing,’ which is the issue that if the WSIB says you’re ready to go back to work, they then assume you’re get­ting your full pay and you’re cut off ben­e­fits. So they’re deem­ing you to have a job when in fact you don’t have a job. This leg­is­la­tion, if it were to pass, would say you real­ly have to base the lost wages on the actu­al lost wages, as opposed to this make believe.”