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Feb 14, 2008

WSIB is a nightmare - 3/4 of disabled workers in poverty

"Approximately three quarters of injured workers are chronically unemployed and living under the poverty line . . . while 42 per cent said their income is from welfare . . . "WSIB is a nightmare . . . The system is totally, totally broken" "

Survey finds poverty among injured workers

Approximately three quarters of injured workers are chronically unemployed and living under the poverty line, a local survey found.

Aided by a Lakehead University master‘s student, the city‘s injured workers support group surveyed 40 injured workers last year to determine the extent of poverty among them.

Half of the participants came from a Thunder Bay and District Injured Workers‘ Support Group event while the other half came from people using the services of Street Reach Ministry, Shelter House or the John Howard Society.

The survey found 71 per cent of respondents have annual incomes below Statistics Canada‘s low income cut-off line for Thunder Bay, of $17,895, a figure which is used as a poverty line.

A further 78 per cent reported being unemployed, and though nearly all were looking for work, half said they thought their chances of finding work were “unrealistic,” said researcher and former Lakehead student Karli Brothchie.

She acknowledged the survey was a small one, but said the results at this level highlight the need for more research into the long-term impacts of workplace injuries.

More study is needed to determine just how many people are facing long-term or permanent unemployment due to being hurt on the job, Brothchie said. Current support group president Janet Paterson estimated 17,500 families in the region are suffering the effects of a long-term disability.

Besides decreased wages – one worker went from $60,000 to $10,000 of annual income – impacts included strained marriages and home life, increased drug use and even thoughts of suicide for 15 per cent.

Eighty per cent reported feelings of isolation, while about 63 per cent said they were depressed.

Steve Mantis, a support group past president, said that may be because being productive and a contributing member of a community is so tied up with a person‘s self esteem.

“You can cope with the (physical) pain . . . but you cannot cope with the depression,” said one woman at Wednesday‘s presentation of the survey results at the Labour Centre. “Sometimes I don‘t even get out of the house” because of the depression, the woman said.

She was unable to work after being injured several times in her job at a city-run home for the aged. She said her case involved proving she really had been hurt at work and took seven years to conclude.

Mantis wants to see the workers compensation system changed, calling the current format too adversarial and suspicious of workers.

But two injured workers in the small audience said the system is beyond repair.

Ted Bobrowski was 30 years old when he hurt his back the first time working construction.

Now 48 and recounting the frustrating system that embroils hurt workers, he said he was once cut off from support because he missed one doctor‘s appointment.

“The system is totally, totally broken,” he said. “It‘s beyond repair.

“It took the best years of my life and threw them in the trash. . . . WSIB is a nightmare and I feel sorry for anyone who hurts themselves. Look after yourself because they‘re not there for you,” he said.

Bobrowski is not alone – Mantis and Brothchie said surveyed workers called the compensation system invasive and demeaning.

Brothchie noted only 18 per cent of those surveyed were receiving workers‘ compensation money, while 42 per cent said their income is from welfare, either Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Payments.

“We have a system in place to help injured workers specifically and it‘s obviously failing them if we‘ve got a large, large percentage on welfare,” Brothchie said.

Welfare isn‘t meant to be a permanent support for people who‘ve been hurt at work, she said.

Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro said he doesn‘t have an explanation for why so many injured workers would be on social assistance rather than workers compensation. His office staff were unable to get an answer from the appropriate ministries in Toronto Wednesday.

“We‘re trying to move the yardsticks forward,” Mauro said, pointing to the government‘s poverty reduction efforts and three 2.5-per-cent increases to workers‘ compensation over 18 months.

“As a government we‘re recognizing this group of people have not been treated equitably for a long period of time, so this is a move to try and address some of that,” said Mauro.

Of the 40 people surveyed, only 64 per cent reported their injuries to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. However, fewer than half of Ontario workers are covered by workers compensation, and the survey did not ask if the respondents were eligible.

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