Hope, heartbreak for former GE workers; After a decade of denials, retiree finally gets compensation. For others, the wait continues

Sara Mojtehedzadeh
The Toronto Star , Apr. 22, 2018

Like hundreds of workers who devoted decades of their lives to General Electric Peterborough, Roger Fowler and Ed Condon wanted one thing: recognition that one of Canada’s oldest and largest industrial facilities, for all the promise and opportunity it offered, also made them sick.

After years of denied compensation claims, a review launched last fall by the provincial compensation board offered the chance to do just that – by re-evaluating some 250 previously rejected cases filed by workers with a range of crippling and often terminal illnesses.

For the Fowler and Condon families, the process has inspired hope in one case and heartbreak in the other.

With its review three-quarters complete, the board has reversed its position in about 48 per cent of the cases it originally denied.

Aaron Lazarus, vice-president of communications for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, said the decisions are based on new evidence and updated science supporting a link between workplace exposures and illness.

A 2016 Star investigation revealed working conditions in decades past at GE Peterborough, in which workers described asbestos fibres floating thick in the air, open pots of lead and mercury dotting the shop floor and 23 massive dip tanks of varnishes and solvents used to coat and degrease motors spreading fumes throughout the plant. GE maintains safety has always been its priority and that it followed the best available practices at the time.

Hundreds of pages of documentation, including reports from the ministries of health and labour, showed unsafe levels of toxic substances at the facility between 1960 and roughly 1980, as well as repeated warnings by government inspectors about poor housekeeping, shoddy ventilation and lack of personal protective equipment.

But of the 660 compensation claims filed since 2005, about half were initially denied or withdrawn for apparently insufficient evidence.

“Overall, what we’re really trying to do is help bring closure,” Lazarus told the Star.

For 72-year-old colorectal cancer survivor Roger Fowler, that is exactly what the WSIB review has accomplished. And the results are life-changing.

His cheque, received Wednesday, means medical bills covered, financial help for his kids, a fishing trip or two, and most importantly, official recognition that his workplace saddled him with 26 years of sickness and surgeries.

“I actually feel like I’ve had my justice now, like I’m being acknowledged that this actually took place,” Fowler says.

“I would like to see everybody looked after that got sick in there,” he adds. “I know it’s not going to happen. But I would like to see that.”

Ed Condon did not live to see the progress made by his tight-knit community of colleagues, although his daughter Cindy Crossley says she knows he would be proud of what they have accomplished.

Condon died of an inoperable brain tumour in 2012. In his final months, he carefully documented the chemicals he had worked with. The final list was 42 items long and included some of the world’s most deadly substances: arsenic; cyanide; vinyl chloride; asbestos; lead; benzene; DDT;

epoxy resins; silica; and cadmium.

In February, Crossley learned her father’s case was denied for a second time.

“Honestly, we were shocked,” Crossley says. “People talk about a roller-coaster, but that truly is what it feels like.”

The trouble, she feels, is that while the board rightfully initiated a claims review, systemic problems – which led to so many denials in the first place – remain unsolved.

The task of providing sufficient evidence to win a claim, she and her husband, Steve, say, is often nearly impossible for grieving families with no background in navigating the compensation system.

“Mum’s tired. She’ll never give up, but it takes its toll,” Crossley says. “It’s such a confusing process. Nothing is straightforward or easy to understand.”

Although scientific advances in occupational disease may help some GE workers, Crossley adds, it’s an area of research that receives little attention and funding.

A report produced for the WSIB in 2010 determined that the province had “no effective reporting or surveillance of occupational disease or exposures” and no central repository of data on the subject. It also said there was little interaction between the ministries of labour, environment and health in tackling occupational disease even though the issue affects all three and warned that the province suffered from a shortage of trained experts in occupational health.

The link between exposure to multiple toxic substances over time and different kinds of cancer is still poorly understood, making it difficult to win compensation, particularly in cases like her father’s.

“There wasn’t a healthier man,” Crossley says of her father. “He showed up (to GE) every single day of his working life for 42 years. How can you possibly say, ‘No, it’s not the workplace?’ ”

Last week, the Ministry of Labour announced a review of how work-related cancers are evaluated to “ensure the compensation system takes into account best practices and the most up-to-date medical science, including the effects of being exposed to multiple substances in a workplace.”

The review will be led by Paul Demers, director of the Toronto-based Occupational Cancer Research Centre and a professor with the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“Occupational diseases, especially cancers, can be difficult to link to workplace exposures,” said Ron Kelusky, the ministry’s chief prevention officer. “It’s not unusual for a worker to file a WSIB claim many years after a job has ended due to the complexities of these diseases.”

Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said his government was dedicated to “ensuring all injured workers continue to be treated with dignity and in a timely manner by the compensation system.”

Trusting a system that let him down for more than a decade, was hard, Fowler says.

Although elated about the outcome of his claim, Fowler initially believed his case was hopeless because it was rejected by the compensation board’s highest level of appeal, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal.

“Until I saw the final letter the other day, I didn’t believe it,” he says. “After all this time and these disappointments and other people getting turned down, you get worried.”

“I can never get back what I’ve lost. But I can go forward now not worrying about anything.”

That is the quietude the Condon family is still fighting for. His daughter is now challenging the board’s second denial of her father’s claim.

“It shouldn’t be a battle over years. We shouldn’t have to lose employees, their spouses,” Crossley says. “People shouldn’t have to die off while they’re waiting for the right thing to happen.”

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a firefighter, whether you’re a rocket scientist or whether you’re a factory worker,” she adds.

“Your life matters.”

Many temp agencies flying under WSIB radar; Audit shows companies often misreport payroll, don’t pay mandatory insurance premiums

Sara Mojtehedzadeh
The Toronto Star , Apr. 9, 2018

Temporary help agencies “create significant challenges” for the provincial compensation board and are more likely than other Ontario employers to break the law, according to an internal audit obtained by the Star.

The findings were the result of a “compliance intervention” strategy conducted by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board from 2013 to 2016, and were released to the Star under freedom of information laws. The audit found that temp agencies were significantly more likely to misreport their payroll to the board, and more likely not to pay mandatory insurance premiums.

Employers are required by law to report their payroll, which is then used by the compensation board to calculate how much employers owe in premium payments. These premiums are used to fund benefits paid to injured workers across the province.

While overall employer compliance with WSIB audits in Ontario was 77 per cent, the audit found that only 38 per cent of temp agency employers followed suit.

The board also found that some 871 temp agencies closed between 2013 and 2016 – and that 51 per cent of them were audited before shutting down. But some appeared to subsequently reinvent themselves: the audit found that 25 per cent of new temp agencies
opening during the same period shared “similar tombstone information” with previously existing agencies.

Ellen MacEachen, a professor at the University of Waterloo who has conducted extensive research on the temp agency sector, said closing down and reopening under a different name allows temp agencies to avoid potential fines or penalties from the compensation board.

“Basically, temp agencies can be very invisible businesses. They can use a cellphone and run it out of their kitchens. They kind of fly under the radar,” she said.

“It all fits with things that we’ve been seeing for a long time.”

Last summer, as part of a yearlong investigation into the rise of temp work in Ontario, the Star sent a reporter to work undercover as a temp at a North York factory.

Our reporter, who was hired by a temp agency called Magnus Services, was paid in cash at a payday lender. The agency did not provide pay stubs and did not make any statutory deductions. The listed addresses for the business turned out to be a virtual office
and an empty unit in a strip mall.

In September 2016, 23-year-old refugee Amina Diaby died at the same facility, Fiera Foods, after being hired through a temp agency called OLA Staffing. She worked at the factory for just two weeks when her headscarf got caught in an unguarded machine, strangling her.

A WSIB briefing note obtained by the Star said OLA had a number of “associated accounts” with the board that “have been investigated for reporting inaccurate payroll and providing false or misleading information related to workers’ claim for benefits,” resulting in three convictions under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act.

One of OLA Staffing’s “associated” firms, Opportunity Labour Agency Service, was previously convicted under health and safety laws after a Brampton temp worker was crushed to death by a stack of plywood in 2006. According to the briefing note, the worker had an expired visa and the agency claimed he was “unbeknownst” to them.

OLA Staffing was incorporated in 2007. Julian Porter, the lawyer representing OLA Staffing director Sangeetha Thushyanthan, said his client had directed the business “responsibly for over 10 years” and that OLA Staffing was the “only temporary employment agency owned and operated” by Thushyanthan.

Porter said no charges were laid against OLA Staffing following Diaby’s death and that the agency has never been charged with a contravention of health and safety or workers’ compensation legislation.

“The charges under the Workplace Safety & Insurance Act, 1997 that you refer to relate to conduct in 2005 and 2006 by corporations owned and controlled by a relative of (Thushyanthan), who is no longer active in the industry of providing temporary employee services. Likewise the unfortunate fatality you refer to occurred on Aug. 31, 2006, prior to the incorporation of OLA Staffing Inc.,” Porter said in a written response to the Star.

Corporate registry records do not list Thushyanthan as the director of the “associated” temp agencies, which dissolved in 2007 and 2008. But the businesses registered office addresses or personal addresses to properties owned by Thushyanthan.

The Star’s 2017 investigation obtained the names and addresses of Ontario’s 2,588 temp agency accounts registered at the WSIB. More than a hundred appeared to be residential addresses, including suburban homes or condo buildings. Around a dozen were simply a P.O. box or were registered to a UPS mailbox service. At least one listed address was an empty plot of land.

“Temp agencies are unique in that they have no infrastructure, no machinery or equipment. Other businesses can’t (shut down and reopen) quite as easily,” MacEachen said.

The Star met with one temp agency owner who said he was forced to move his business out of the GTA because he could no longer compete with temp agencies who offered clients cheap labour rates by avoiding legal obligations.

“It’s the lack of enforcement that’s given us a bad name,” the owner said.

The pattern can also strand workers seeking unpaid wages.

Scarborough resident Mohammed Siraj got a job through a temp agency painting signs after he came to Canada as a refugee from Sudan. Over the course of a month, he says he worked around 100 hours. He says he received one cheque for around three days work, but it bounced.

After failing to pay him, he says the temp agency moved locations and didn’t answer their phone. It took him two months to find their new office.

“She said, ‘I’ll give you next week. Next week. Next week,’ ” he said of the temp agency owner.

Siraj filed a successful claim to the Ministry of Labour in January 2016, which issued his agency a so-called order to pay. But Siraj has never received the $1,287 he was owed.

“This is a human rights country. A freedom country. But the first time I got a job, I didn’t get my money,” said Siraj, who has three children under 10 living with him in Canada.

Ondine Almeida, who came to Canada in 2005 from Goa, India, said her experience is similar. Last May, the Ministry of Labour found she was owed almost $6,000 from her former temp agency, but it too shut down. She has yet to recover her wages.

Almeida said her teeth are falling out and she needs dentures, but can’t afford to go to the dentist.

“My mom is all worried, my brother and sisters are all worried. Each has their own family so I can’t keep worrying my family all the time. I just need my money.”

“Many of these small temp agencies are run in their own community and use new immigrants and many times workers don’t come forward and complain when they are new,” said Regini David of West Scarborough Community Legal Services, which helped both workers file their Ministry of Labour complaints.

“People also lose hope and trust. Ondine and Mohammed are a good example. They won. They have an order. But collection is an issue.”

The Ministry of Labour has committed to doubling its complement of employment standards inspectors to improve enforcement efforts. The ministry is also undertaking an in-depth investigation into the temp agency sector with results expected to be available in the spring.

On Friday, the provincial government officially enacted legislation requiring the compensation board to hold both temp agencies and their client companies accountable when a temp agency worker is hurt on the job.