Workers' compensation system 'mean-spirited' and 'broken fundamentally'

Labour scholar, whose father died of an occupational illness, on how workers have been affected over the years

Workers' compensation system 'mean-spirited' and 'broken fundamentally'

Robert Storey has decades of experience working with injured workers.

He has written extensively about workers’ compensation, notably analyzing how the Ontario workers’ compensation system has evolved from the early 1900s to now.

Storey is an emeritus faculty, McMaster University, School of Labour Studies.

His interest in compensation started when he was researching the province’s health and safety movement, and became aware of the injured worker movement.

“I was startled by what I found, and the way that the injured workers were treated by basically everybody –certainly by their employers and the workers’ compensation system, but in too many instances, by co-workers, and, disappointingly, by their unions.  “The whole system seemed rigged against getting justice for them.”

Storey’s interest on the topic was also spurred by his father, who died of an occupational cancer.

Storey’s father was a drill press operator at the International Harvester in Hamilton, ON, at the time a farm implements manufacturer (since 1986, the company is solely a truck and engineer manufacturer and became known as Navistar).

“He worked with a widely-used white, cutting lubricant which was revealed to be a carcinogen, for about 34 years and then died quickly after he retired,” says Storey.

Changing times

Storey explains that the compensation system in Ontario was set up in 1915, and though it had problems right from the beginning, those problems got addressed in various ways over time.

By the 1960s and 70s, we had a kind of welfare state compensation system that mirrored the larger welfare state system in Ontario and the rest of Canada. Pressure, in this period almost exclusively from unions, produced a system that, at its best, tried to live up to its motto of “Justice speedily and humanely rendered,” says Storey.

But this, says Storey, starts to change from the 1980s.

“It’s moved from a system where there was recognition and maybe even some compassion for workers,” says Storey, to a system that he says works against injured workers.

When the system was set up, Storey says that one of the things Sir William Meredith – former Chief Justice and author of the Meredith Principles – initially conceived was that workers should get payment for as long as their disability lasted.

“According to Meredith, If the disability lasted their lifetime, then injured workers should get [compensation] for their lifetime This was the pension system,” says Storey.

In 1990, the government passed a law which got rid of the pension and broke it into two payments; this decision fundamentally changed the paradigm of workers’ compensation, says Storey:

“So now injured workers do not get paid for as long as their disability lasts, far from it. Now they have trouble getting compensation in the first place.”

Storey describes the current iteration of workers’ compensation as a “mean spirited system.”

“It’s a horrible system. The original humpty-dumpty model of workers’ compensation has fallen off the wall and smashed into a thousand pieces.  Can it be put back together or do we need something new, something different?”

And this problem, says Storey, is not just limited to Ontario or even to Canada – it’s a global issue.

And now, he says, not only are workers struggling to get compensation but the Ford government has recently announced that it is looking to introduce legislation that would allow a significant portion of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s (WSIB) current surplus to be distributed to employers deemed as safe.

But, says Storey, “by right, that money should go to the injured workers.”

The WSIB gets a lot of heat, and justifiably so, he says, but really it’s employers who are driving this system.

“They’re the real moving force behind this,” he says.

And this has been an issue for the last 20 or 30 years now, says Storey.

Necessary compensation

In the 1990s, under the Mike Harris government, a hotline or “snitch line” was created, where “citizens could phone in to report what they thought were injured workers [taking advantage of the system],” says Storey.

This created a system wherein injured workers were essentially treated with suspicion. But, says Storey, “that kind of fraud is more relevant among employers, far more rampant than ever has been among workers.”

WSIB coverage isn’t mandatory for everyone is Ontario.

24 per cent of Ontario workers do not have WSIB coverage. This means around 1.7 million workers in Ontario do not have WSIB coverage.

“That’s a huge issue, especially for racialized groups in vulnerable and precarious jobs,” says Storey.

The labour movement in Canada has been under tremendous pressure, and unions’ influence has waned over the last few decades.

“The pressure that the labour movement has been under has really impacted the attention and the resources they’ve been able to direct to injured workers,” says Storey.

So what recourse do employees have? This is a question that is certainly relevant now as potentially a significant amount of workers may seek compensation for long-haul COVID or other related issues. It’s one that is hard to answer in the midst of the pandemic but that is essential, and one that will hopefully be answered so that injured and ill workers get necessary compensation.