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Injured Workers Day

I Introduction
II Background - Injured Workers Day
III Research in Action
IV Province-wide survey
V Injured Workers' Income
VI Thinking about Poverty Reduction: Benefit Trap or Social Safety Net?
VII Get Involved

--submitted by Bonita Heath, health promoter and PhD student in the Critical Disability Studies Program at York University, and Steve Mantis, an injured worker who has been active in law reform and social change in occupational health and safety and workers compensation for 30 years

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I Introduction

June 1 is Injured Workers Day. And for the first time in many years, anti-poverty activists see some hope with the passage of Ontario's Poverty Reduction Act earlier this month. What do these two statements have to do with one another? Injured workers are an often overlooked, but vital part of the picture of poverty in Ontario.

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II Background - Injured Workers Day

Injured Workers Day commemorates June 1, 1984 when over 3,000 injured workers and their families attended a government committee that was looking at replacing lifetime workers' compensation pensions for those partially or permanently injured with a lump-sum payment for pain and suffering and a wage-loss system of payment. Outraged injured workers convinced the committee to shift their meeting from the committee room to the lawn at Queen's Park for the first time in the history of the legislature. Equally important, the changes opposed by injured workers did not make their way into the legislation (though similar changes have been implemented since that time.) Injured workers, their families, and advocates have gathered on the lawn of the legislature every June 1 since. [1]

This year's rally will focus on poverty among injured workers and the need for the community to do its own research. Just as anti-poverty activists are struggling to undo the damage done to social assistance during the Conservative government in the nineties, so injured workers are fighting to restore workers' compensation as a viable income security system.

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III Research in Action

There is a lack of comprehensive and current research in this area, but the few studies looking at employment following injury have found between 40% and 78% chronic unemployment among workers with a permanent injury/disability. [2, 3, 4, 5, 6] For nearly 20 years, the Ontario Network of Injured Workers' Groups (ONIWG) has been asking the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) — and subsequently the Workers Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) — as well as successive provincial governments to track the employment, wage loss, and health outcomes of workers with a permanent disability. For whatever reason the WSIB or government departments have not taken on this task, even though they have the best—some might argue the only—access to the available data on injured workers.

With the help of graduate students at Lakehead University, the Thunder Bay and District Injured Workers' Support Group (TB&DIWSG) decided to do its own research in 2007. [7] They were inspired by the 2006 Street Health survey that suggested that 57% of those living on the streets of Toronto had experienced a workplace injury and 46% of those who had worked had received workers' compensation benefits, although none were receiving workers compensation benefits at the time of the survey. [8] This suggested to the Thunder Bay group that under-compensation for a workplace injury may be a significant contributing factor to homelessness. As a result, they drew from their own membership of injured workers, as well as services for homeless people in Thunder Bay.

Without any claim that their 40 respondents were representative of the entire injured worker community in Thunder Bay, the group did find a shocking 71% of their sample living on income below the low-income cut-off. Just as important, from a health promotion point of view, this project brought together groups that had never worked together on poverty issues before.

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IV Province-wide survey

Encouraged by these efforts, ONIWG decided to expand the survey across the province. [9] A committee comprising members of the injured worker community and a graduate student from York University revised the survey tool. As they had in Thunder Bay, this larger group used a purposive sampling strategy to identify injured workers with a permanent injury who had sought medical or legal assistance for a work-related injury or illness. Most respondents used an electronic version of the survey, which was advertised on the web sites of various organizations working with injured workers and people with disabilities. Representatives of ONIWG's member organizations in Windsor, Hamilton, London, Toronto, and Thunder Bay made paper copies of the survey available to injured workers using their services and provided assistance in completing the form for those with low literacy and language barriers. Data were collected between March 15 and May 11, 2009. To avoid double counting (among Thunder Bay respondents), the first question on the survey asked respondents to identify whether they had completed a similar survey in the previous six months. Surveys of respondents who had completed the survey in the previous six months were not included in the analysis.

Two hundred and sixty-one people started the survey, with 226 completing it within the time frame. Of those 226, one person had filled out the survey in the previous six months. Not all respondents answered all questions. Fifty-four per cent (119/220) of respondents were men, 46% (101/220) were women. The mean age of respondents was 52 years. Of the 221 respondents who gave their level of education, 23% reported that they did not finish high school. Most respondents, 41% (88/217) live in the Greater Toronto Area. The second largest regional group was from north western Ontario, with 16% (34/217) of respondents. Next was the Hamilton-Niagara area (including Brampton) at 12%. The north eastern part of the province returned 10% of the respondents.

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V Injured Workers' Income

Again the small sample size means this survey cannot claim to represent the injured worker population, or even those who have permanent injuries. Furthermore, because it draws from injured workers seeking help or already active in workers' compensation issues, there is a greater likelihood that these respondents are among those dissatisfied with the workers' compensation system. But it did document deep poverty among those who responded. Forty-one per cent (84/203) of respondents reported an income of less than $15,000, which in turn, is less than the 2007 after-tax Low Income Cut-Off (LICO) for one person living in a large city. Of these, 26% (53/203) reported incomes of less than $10,000, less than the lowest 2007 LICO (one person in a rural area).

In addition, 22% (46/210) of respondents reported that they had annual household incomes of less than $15,000, and 10% (22/210) reported annual household incomes of less than $10,000.

Compare these findings with those cited in a recent report of the Canadian Council on Social Development. [10] Using the same poverty measure, they note that in Ontario, "The 2006 Census showed that ... 11.1% [of Ontarians] had an after-tax income at or below the Low Income Cut-Off (LICO) established by Statistics Canada." Despite the methodological limitations of this survey, these results are striking. Could it be that the poverty rate among injured workers may be two to four times higher than that for the general population? ONIWG intends to continue to find the answer to this question, both in terms of improving on its own survey and lobbying the WSIB to do its own research.

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VI Thinking about Poverty Reduction: Benefit Trap or Social Safety Net?

Workers' compensation legislation was one of the earliest modern forays into what we might now call "income security" programs. In 1913, Ontario's Sir William Meredith travelled to England, Belgium, France, Germany, different provinces of Canada, and parts of the United States to investigate their workers' compensation systems. Based on his investigation, he laid out the key principles for a workers' compensation system [11], the first of which is that it should provide income security! This may sound odd, but it is a tenet of income security policy that seems to have been lost in recent years of neo-liberal governments. Furthermore, workers' compensation was originally meant to provide that income security for the duration of the disability, even if that was the injured worker's remaining lifetime. It was this principle of life-long income security for life-long disability that sparked the first Injured Workers' Day. Today, workers' compensation and other benefits have become tools in the obsession with reducing costs (public and private) and avoiding the "benefit trap" for recipients.

The injured worker community also has a rich history of activism of interest to all committed to addressing the social determinants of health — poverty in particular. For example, the injured worker community is currently involved in a large Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) grant that is generating much-needed comprehensive research on the long-term financial, emotional, and health consequences of work injury. This initiative is called the Research Action Alliance on the Consequences of Work Injury (RAACWI). [12] The community has also implemented community-led training programs the most recent of which is the Injured Workers Speakers School that has developed more than two dozen community activists who are knowledgeable in the history and legalities of workers' compensation and confident in their abilities to describe their lived experiences to politicians, policy makers and the public — often in their second language. The next Speakers' School is scheduled for October 2009 in Toronto. The injured worker community has also joined with the artistic community to get its message out. The play "Easy Money" is one example. It takes a satirical look at the common misperception that injured workers prefer to rely on workers' compensation as a source of "easy money" rather than to work for a living. Professional actors portray the frustration of many injured workers as they wade through the retraining process.

One of the most innovative actions that the injured worker community has produced is its 2007- 2008 "Annual Report" [13]. Based on the format of the corporate annual report, this document is a 75-page collective reflection of the life of a province-wide community over a year. It includes discussions of research reports, including the Thunder Bay survey presented here, poetry from injured workers, and a "Financial Report" that analyzes the public debates about the funding of workers' compensation.

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VI Get Involved

Injured workers make excellent health promotion allies during this current opportunity to fight poverty in Ontario, so let's start making the connections. Join us for Injured Workers Day on June 1 at Queen's Park.

For more information on the resources associated with this article, contact Bonnie Heath at [email protected] or Steve Mantis at [email protected].

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VII References

1. Injured Workers History Project, Bulletin #1. Available at http://www.injuredworkersonline.org/iwhp.html

2. Butler, R. J., Johnson, W. G., & Baldwin, M. L. (1995). Managing work disability - why 1st return to work is not a measure of success. Industrial & Labor Relations Review, 48(3), 452-469.

3. Burton J.F. & Sinclair, S. Development of a Schedule for Compensation of Noneconomic Loss in Chaykowski, R. P. & Thomason, T. (1995) Research in Workers' Compensation. Kingston: Queen's University: IRC Press.

4. Canadian Injured Workers Alliance (1995) Vocational Rehabilitation and Re-employment from the Injured Worker's Perspective. Available at http://www.ciwa.ca/englishSite/merch/onlineCatalog.html

5. Johnson, William G., and Marjorie L. Baldwin. 1993. Returns to work by Ontario workers with permanent partial disabilities: A Report to the Workers' Compensation Board of Ontario. Toronto: Workers Compensation Board of Ontario.

6. Workers' Compensation Board (1993). Future Economic Loss (FEL) Study.

7. 2007-2008 Annual Report Injured Workers. Available at http://www.injuredworkersonline.org/Documents/IW_Annual_Report_%200708.pdf

8. Quoted in Injured Workers Consultants, "Submission to the Standing Committee on Poverty Reduction Act, 2009". Available at http://www.injuredworkersonline.org/Documents/Bill152_IWCsubm.pdf

9. The final report from the survey will be available at http://www.injuredworkersonline.org/ after June 1, 2009.

10. Canadian Council on Social Development, "Poverty Reduction Policies and Programs, Ontario", http://www.ccsd.ca

11. Meredith, Sir William, R. (1913). Final report on laws relating to the liability of employers to make compensation to their employees for injuries received in the course of their employment which are in force in other countries, and as to how far such laws are found to work satisfactorily. Available from http://www.awcbc.org/common/assets/english%20pdf/meredith_report.pdf

12. Information about RAACWI and many of the activities discussed in this article can be found at http://www.consequencesofworkinjury.ca. In particular, see the newsletters.

13. 2007 - 2008 Annual Report Injured Workers. Available at http://www.injuredworkersonline.org/Documents/IW_Annual_Report_%200708.pdf