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Injured workers demand better compensation system in Ontario

TORONTO - The elephant stood on the driveway in front of the Ontario Legislative Building. It was a grey inflatable with white tusks and a piece of paper taped to its trunk that read "Auditors Report."

“In that report the unfunded liability has once again reared its ugly head,” said Peter Page, President, Ontario Network of Injured Worker Groups (ONIWG) at Tuesday’s 27th annual Injured Workers Day rally.

Workers compensation boards exist in all provinces. In exchange for guaranteed protection, workers give up the right to sue their employers for injuries or illnesses that occur in the workplace. Benefits are funded by premiums that are paid for by the employer.

In 1990, the unfunded liability of the Workers Compensation and Insurance Board (WSIB) was $9.1 billion. In 1997, after Bill 99 was passed, the unfunded liability dropped sharply due to significant cost-of-living cuts. By 2006, the unfunded liability had dropped to $5.9 billion.

Due to a significant drop in investment income caused by the financial crisis, the unfunded liability rose dramatically to $11.5 billion as of December 31, 2008, leaving the WSIB with three options: increase employer premiums, reduce worker benefits or increase investment income.

Organized labour is concerned that the unfunded liability will be lowered by reducing worker benefits while employers argue that benefit levels are too high and increasing premiums would hurt their competitive position, even though premiums were at $3.21 per $100 of insurable payroll in 1991 and only $2.26 in 2009.

That leaves the government and the WSIB in the unenviable position of deciding which course of action to take.

But Page is convinced that injured workers will be forced to pay the price rather than forcing employers to pay their fair share.

“Raise assessment rates,” said Page. “Have a health and safety system that is actually enforced so if employers stop maiming and killing workers the WSIB’s crisis could be resolved.”

But until then, the President of ONWIG demanded full cost of living coverage and no more deeming or experience rating.

The poverty rate for injured workers is two to four times higher than the general population in Ontario. Nearly one in five lives on social assistance. Twenty per cent lost their homes and one in five no longer has a car after their injury.

A group of injured workers held an overnight vigil before Tuesday’s rally to remind politicians and the WSIB of the desperate need to reform the workers’ compensation system in Ontario.

On Wednesday, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts discussed the Auditor General’s report on the financial predicament of the WSIB. Injured workers groups, unions and legal clinics requested to make oral presentations but they were turned down.

Instead they handed in written submissions for the Committee’s consideration.

Perhaps they’ll consider the case of Wes Mahoney who fell 44 feet when the clips holding up the extension part of a ladder snapped. His right heel and ankle were found up around his knee, which were rebuilt with metal bars and screws.

“Wes didn’t precipitate this event,” said his wife. “His employer did by not maintaining safe equipment.”

A year later, Mahoney returned to work doing the same job – with a new ladder. For 16 years, he worked with a metal foot.

“Every day, sheer agony,” she said.

But he re-injured his metal foot trying to avoid a falling flower pot. Mahoney shifted his body to the side of the step ladder and fell four feet. But his metal foot hit a boulder, bending it inward.

As a result, he needs surgery to replace the metal in his foot. The surgeon will also have to fuse his ankle to prevent mobility. But that won’t happen for another 18 months because of a backlog in the health care system.

In spite of his injury, limited mobility and constant pain, Mahoney has been deemed employable by the WSIB who chose not to make him eligible for retraining. Instead, he was placed into a four-week university level job search program.

“The staff generated him an $11,000 resume,” she said. “Too bad he can’t read it.”

In the meantime, his compensation has been reduced to $419 per month, forcing him and his wife onto social assistance. 

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