Amputee Winston Morrison stood out in the cold with demonstrators on University Ave. for more than an hour Monday to bring attention to the fate of migrant farm workers who experience injuries and then are typically sent home with little in the way of workers’ compensation.
Morrison’s situation is more complex.
The injured worker from Jamaica lost his leg after a complication from a fall at a Leamington tomato farm in 2011. But the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board says he is now recovered and employable, even though the minimum-wage earner is illiterate and is not legally allowed to work in Canada.
The board said Morrison’s benefits would be cut off at the end of the month, but reversed that decision after the migrant worker appeared at Monday’s rally.
Morrison’s case was one of a “dirty laundry” list of complaints highlighted by injured workers’ advocates at the annual protest outside the Ministry of Labour.
Speakers called for a fully funded system that includes annual cost-of-living increases and an end to million-dollar rebates for companies that have previous health and safety violations — an issue highlighted in a recent report by the Ontario Federation of Labour and first exposed by the Toronto Star in 2008.
Labour Minister Kevin Flynn attended the demonstration and announced that full cost-of-living increases for all injured workers should be in place within the next year.
“It’s something I’m committed to doing,” Flynn told the crowd of about 150, who braved the cold and wind. “It’s something the premier has said, without any question, that she wants to see.”
Currently, only injured workers who are fully covered by the WSIB for their lost income receive increases fully indexed to inflation. They represent only a very small percentage of recipients.
The vast majority receive partial loss-of-earning benefits, which have risen just 0.5 per cent for each of the past two years.
Demonstrators also voiced outrage at WSIB president and CEO David Marshall’s rumoured $400,000 bonus, “on the backs of injured workers.”
The WSIB's insurance fund takes in less money than it needs to pay the benefits of injured workers, leaving it with billions of dollars in unfunded liability. The province passed legislation requiring the board to get rid of that liability by 2027.
Workers’ advocates say the board has been cutting benefits since Marshall, a former banker and federal employee, landed in the position in 2010. They say claims have been denied through use of tactics such as surveillance or blaming injuries on pre-existing conditions.
Flynn said he couldn’t confirm whether Marshall was receiving the bonus, but said the Liberal government’s proposed Accountability Act, which would cap salaries for executives, will address that.
“I think the sentiment behind Bill 8 is one that we expect to see translated throughout government — throughout the boards and agencies that work with and for the government,” said Flynn. “Certainly, what we’re asking for is restraint, and I expect to see that restraint exercised.”
The bill passed on its third reading Tuesday.
NDP labour critic Taras Natyshak issued a statement Monday critical of the WSIB.
“The continued attack on injured workers under the Liberal government must stop,” said Natyshak. “Instead of supporting workers in their time of need, this government is cutting back on their benefits and denying claims, while rewarding the CEO of the WSIB with a bonus on his six figure salary.”
There were 82 workplace fatalities in 2013, according to a WSIB report, an increase of 18 deaths from the year before.
Flynn says many of the fatalities are occurring during falls from roofs or scaffolding, and the premier has asked him to bring in an action plan this year to lower injuries in the construction industry. The province will introduce new training standards in the spring.
“What we’re seeing is the death rates are too high. There’s no question about that,” said Flynn, while noting that, overall, workplace injuries have declined by about 30 per cent in the past decade. “Perhaps our focus hasn’t been in the right areas. We’ve been able to bring the number of incidents down, but we haven’t been focusing on the areas where those fatalities occur.”
The protest, organized by the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups, has been held annually for the past 23 years.
After his speech, Flynn told reporters that the focus of the board has been on insurance rates and premiums, instead of on people.
“I think we need to remember why we have a plan in the first place,” he said. “It’s to protect those people that are truly injured on the job and getting them the benefits that they truly deserve.”
Giuseppe Chessari, who lost both his legs above the knee in a 2009 work accident, also spoke at the demonstration.
The Star wrote about his case after the insurance board threatened to cut off the 37-year-old’s wage replacement benefits if he didn’t return to college to complete his two-year electrical engineering technician program, after which Chessari — according to an agreement with the board — would no longer receive money to live on from the WSIB.
The Toronto resident stopped attending because the sockets that he wears on his legs as part of his prostheses caused him pain after a few hours of standing. The insurance board told Chessari to use a wheelchair.
The board has since told Chessari that his benefits will not be suspended and that he should concentrate on his treatment and rehabilitation. Sunnybrook hospital is in the process of making new sockets for the double amputee.