The Toronto Star , July 23, 2016
The number of complaints made to the provincial watchdog about Ontario’s worker compensation system has jumped by almost 20 per cent over the past year, the Star has learned. Nearly 600 complaints were made to the ombudsman about the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) between last April and March of this year, according to statistics requested by the Star – a spike from 2014/15, when the watchdog received about 480 grievances about the board. A further 141 complaints have been lodged in the past three-and-a-half-months.
The increase comes as doctors, labour groups and injured-worker advocates call for a formal investigation into the WSIB, alleging that “systematic disregard” for medical advice given by accident victims’ own doctors. That, critics say, often leads to workers being unfairly kicked off benefits.
“I feel like it’s a pretty strong indication to the ombudsman that external intervention is needed,” said Aidan MacDonald, of the Injured Workers’ Consultants Community Legal Clinic.
“People don’t seem to be able to trust the WSIB to fix its own problems, so I think this does support our request that a full investigation by the ombudsman is necessary to hold the WSIB accountable for its systemic injustices.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the board said it was “misleading” to suggest there had been a significant increase in complaints, because the number in 2014/15 dipped somewhat compared with previous years. From 2011 to 2013, an average of 580 WSIB complaints were lodged with the ombudsman.
“We track the numbers of complaints received by the ombudsman and treat them very seriously. The number of complaints has remained relatively constant over the past five years,” the statement said, adding that the number of grievances made to the board’s internal Fair Practices Commission declined over the past five years.
Linda Williamson, a spokeswoman for the provincial ombudsman, said she could not comment on whether the recent increase in complaints would affect the organization’s decision to investigate, which has yet to be finalized. “Generally speaking, although complaint volume can be a consideration, it is just one of many factors the ombudsman reviews in deciding whether or not to launch an investigation,” she said.
“WSIB has consistently been among the top five or top 10 most complained-about provincial government organizations over the past several years.”
Last year, the WSIB received the fourth-highest number of complaints of any provincial government organization. Williamson said she did not know how the board currently ranks, as the figures would be released in the watchdog’s annual report this fall.
In an ongoing investigation into board practices, the Star has detailed allegations of unfair – and even unlawful – cost-cutting measures that critics say came at the expense of some of the province’s most vulnerable workers. These include the use of so-called paper doctors, who review injured workers’ files without ever examining them in person, and wrongly attributing accident victims’ symptoms to “pre-existing conditions” so as to reduce compensation.
The number of complaints against the board’s independent appeals tribunal has also increased since last year, from 99 complaints to 128 – a 23-per-cent increase. As previously reported by the Star, the tribunal has been an important avenue for workers to challenge board decisions, but has been hampered by massive backlogs.
“Injured workers are just being cut off benefits,” Macdonald said. “They’re being denied treatment that they need, they’re being denied
medication that they need.”
Injured workers by the numbers WSIB complaints at provincial ombudsman’s office:
Complaints at WSIB’s internal ombudsman: