Bluffs Advocate

Workplace

Cuts Unhealed

WSIB cuts made by Hudak’s mentor keep on punishing injured workers

By Derek Johnstone

            Nearly 20 years ago, Mike Harris—former Ontario premier and long-time mentor of the current PC boss, Tim Hudak—led the onslaught against the province’s insurance system for injured workers. People who get hurt on the job today in Ontario are still struggling with that reckless legacy. In fact, they’re worse off now than they’ve ever been.
           Harris’s attack on the province’s workers’ compensation system, which he renamed the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (or WSIB), was based on a lot of the unsubstantiated claims that we still see regurgitated in Hudak’s current (for lack of a better term) “white papers.”
           From start to finish, the ultraconservative agenda was—and is—about putting the interests of corporations ahead of individual Ontarians. In the case of the WSIB, that meant cutting employer contributions so drastically that it soon resulted in a $7 billion unfunded liability for the fund that was created for people who can’t work because they have been injured at work.
           In response to the Conservative-driven unfunded liability, the WSIB has aggressively cut injured workers’ compensation. The WSIB claims that that this is primarily because of its improved return to work services and a reduction in the number of claims, but provides no evidence to support such claims. According to the Board’s own statistics, there has been a 50 per cent increase in the rate of claims denial and a reduction of $633 million in benefits.
           Unions—like mine, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW Canada), whose very gifted benefits people represent and stand with injured workers through the shamefully complicated WSIB process— report that the Board is cutting injured worker compensation by ignoring its own longstanding policies, denying claims, and deeming that injured workers have returned to work, whether they have or not.
           Older workers have borne the brunt. The WSIB routinely denies their claims or reduces their benefits if there is even a hint of evidence that they have a pre-existing condition, even if that condition never gave them any problems before or caused them to lose time from work.
           But things are about to get a lot worse.
           Under the direction of current WSIB chairperson, Elizabeth Witmer (who, like Hudak, was a former stalwart in the Harris ultra-conservative government), there is a new effort afoot to further revise the WSIB policies, which have the force of law in determining and appealing claims.
           These draft policies are the WSIB’s attempt to legitimize and legalize its cuts. In 2010, the WSIB issued earlier draft policies based on a cutback-oriented audit report from KPMG. Following an outcry from the worker community, the WSIB retained Jim Thomas, a workers’ compensation expert, to carry out a consultation. That consultation seems to have made no difference, because the current draft policies are along the very same lines as the KPMG recommendations.
           The main problem with the draft policies is that they direct board and tribunal decision makers to focus on cutting compensation, especially where there is any evidence of a pre-existing condition. It is critical to understand that pre-existing conditions are defined very broadly, and include age-related changes or vulnerabilities even if they have never affected the worker’s ability to do his/her job.
           The most common example of a preexisting condition is degenerative disc disease, which isn’t really a disease; it is just a sign of an aging back. On the MRI of almost any worker, especially those over the age of 40, you will see evidence of degenerative disc disease, even if the worker has a strong and healthy back and is completely symptom free.
           Under the new policies, decision makers will be directed to focus on the worker’s preexisting condition instead of the injury that happened at work. If they find a pre-existing condition, they are to deny ongoing benefits. Even if benefits are granted at the outset, the pre-existing condition will be used as an excuse to reduce longer term benefits, especially those for permanent disabilities.
           Cutting workers’ compensation doesn’t make the costs of work injuries go away. It just means that the costs are shifted from employers to working people through our benefit plans—taxpayers via ODSP, Ontario Works and other disability-related supports, and in the absence of these options, most troublingly, injured workers and their families are ultimately forced into poverty.
           Despite the best efforts of the ultraconservatives, a fair and accessible workers’ compensation system must exist to serve as an essential part of assisting injured workers in Ontario.
           It has been shown that securing the future of the WSIB and its ability to fulfil its mandate does not require benefit cuts to injured workers. In 2010, following a lot of public attention to the unfunded liability, the government appointed Professor Harry Arthurs, chair of the WSIB funding review committee and former dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, to do a funding review of the WSIB. In his report, Funding Fairness, Professor Arthurs agreed that the WSIB’s financial situation was urgent, but he emphasized that it could be addressed by modest premium increases for employers and without any cutbacks to injured worker benefits.
           When it comes to protecting our province’s injured workers, the truth is that the only thing we can’t afford is to buy the Tories’ bankrupt spin.
Derek Johnstone is a proud union member and retail worker advocate who lives at Kingston and Woodbine.

UFCW