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Ontario Has Left Frontline Workers at the Mercy of COVID-19

The pandemic has exposed gaping holes in Ontario’s workplace compensations system. Sick and injured workers, often employed in frontline industries, have been left out of work without compensation.

Bus driver in Toronto, Ontario, 2021. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

In Ontario, the pandemic has renewed interest in the importance of workplace rights and protections. Unfortunately, however, these discussions have neglected the specific problems faced by injured and frontline workers.

As workers across the province marked another Injured Workers’ Day on June 1, the inadequacies of the provincial government’s pandemic response have become all too clear. So, too, has the need for significant change to Ontario’s workers compensation system.

Premium Deficiencies

In April, the government amended the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, capping the premiums that employers will have to pay in 2021. The act calculates employer premiums based on payroll for all covered employers in the province. Those premiums are linked to changes in the average industrial wage (AIW). The AIW measures the average hourly rate of pay for virtually all workforces across the province.

According to the government’s own analysis, the AIW normally rises only two or three percentage points per year. As a result of the pandemic, the AIW has increased by almost 8 percent more than last year. However, this does not mean there has been a general improvement in wages. Rather, it is the consequence of there being fewer low-wage workers in employment.

In April, the federal government amended provincial workers compensation legislation to reduce the premiums that high-wage employers will pay in 2021. Employers typically pay premiums based on their payroll, with a ceiling set at 175 percent of the AIW each year above which they don’t have to pay. The ceiling is now set at $97,308, which reflects a two percent increase to the AIW. The actual increase this year is closer to four times that.

By lowering the ceiling, the government is ensuring that employers will only have to pay Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) premiums on wages up to $97,308. For businesses that employ high-wage workers, this is very good news. It is a cherry on top of the already significant financial aid they received in March 2020, when the government deferred premium payments for six months.

The Ontario government has lauded these changes, primarily because they benefit some skilled trades. While there is no doubt that certain industries and businesses will get a break on premiums, scores of businesses across Ontario won’t see any benefit at all.

This break to high-salaried sectors comes alongside the continued absence of substantive relief for thousands of low-wage workers. It is precisely these frontline workers that the government has claimed to prioritize over the course of the pandemic. But such rhetoric has not resulted in meaningful legislative action.

A serious response to the current crisis calls for stronger measures. Assistance should not be so narrow in scope when the need for relief is so great. In the short term, there are some very tangible changes the Ontario government could make to help millions of workers weather both COVID-19 and the travails of low-wage employment.

COVID-19 Compensation Claims

Frontline workers in Ontario should be able to assert that any COVID-19-related WSIB claims arise from the workplace. This is already the case in British Columbia. Without this kind of legislative presumption, many hospital workers, for example, are at risk of having their claims denied.

Acquiring compensation becomes incredibly difficult if there is any doubt as to whether workers caught the virus at work. Many face the prospect of a potentially serious illness without timely access to workplace benefits that could facilitate their recovery and also keep their workplaces safe.

The WSIB have denied over eight hundred claims made by nurses, residential care facility workers, and hospital workers. Introducing a compensation presumption would reduce the uncertainty and time it takes to access financial and health care benefits.

For other frontline workers, WSIB coverage itself is in question. Ontario has the lowest rate of mandatory coverage for workers compensation in Canada. An estimated 1.7 million workers do not have access to WSIB benefits.

These include workers in industries like private childcare, early child education, personal support, and residential care who are not entitled to wage-loss benefits, health care benefits, or return-to-work supports provided through the WSIB. For these and many other workers, WSIB coverage is in the gift of employers who are free to opt out of the program.

The inability to access benefits through the WSIB during the pandemic places the health and safety of millions of workers at risk — not to mention the general population. Implementing universal workers compensation coverage is not only good policy now, in the face of the biggest public health crisis for a century. It is also the right thing to do in the long term. Reviews commissioned by the WSIB itself have already recommended implementing universal coverage.

Insult to Injury

Injured workers, who receive benefits from the WSIB, have not received any additional financial relief. This is especially shocking since many injured workers have permanent impairments and disabilities that can make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

Furthermore, injured workers often incur extra expenses resulting from medical travel requirements and food delivery costs. In the absence of in-person appointments, some workers also require home health equipment to assist in their treatment. To help cover these costs, and to ensure the safety of injured workers, the authorities should have put additional financial supports in place at the beginning of the pandemic.

The WSIB often provides some return-to-work training support for workers suffering from permanent injuries who are unable to go back to their previous job. In these cases, the WSIB assigns alternative “suitable” occupations for injured workers. It will make suggestions that range from “ticket taker” to “light assembly work.” The WSIB is supposed to consider the unique characteristics of the worker, including their impairments, education, and language abilities.

Injured workers are expected to find and take a job in the field assigned to them. Once the board has made the assignation, the WSIB automatically classifies these workers as employed, whether they have actually found work or not. The board then reduces their benefits by reference to the average wage paid to people working in the assigned field — even if the worker can’t find a job.

In practice, this means that an injured worker can end up “reemployed” in a new phantom job and forced to live on less than half the amount they were previously getting through the WSIB. Workers often find themselves facing the threat of eviction, missed bill payments, and food insecurity. This forces many workers to rely on taxpayer-funded income support programs like welfare and disability just to keep afloat.

It is time to end this practice that pushes workers into poverty. The WSIB should reinstate full wage-loss benefits for all workers who are deemed “employed.” This change is essential in the short term as we face the pandemic, but ought to continue afterward as well.

Governments of all political stripes are struggling to manage the economic and social impacts of the virus. But the vulnerabilities of precarious workers have been all too clear since the first lockdown. More than a year later, the Ontario government has still not taken the necessary action to protect its frontline workers. Working Ontarians deserve a better compensation system — as do workers everywhere.