June 19, 2020
TORONTO – Canada’s provincial governments must rectify deeply entrenched, fatal flaws in the workers’ compensation system that continue to ruin lives and exacerbate the opioid crisis, the United Steelworkers (USW) says.
“A national media exposé this week has documented the disastrous human toll wrought by the failings of Canada’s workers’ compensation boards,” said USW National Director Ken Neumann.
“Sadly, these tragic revelations are not surprising to unions and others who advocate for injured workers, nor to workers and families who have been devastated by the system’s failings,” Neumann said.
“For years, unions have demanded reforms to a broken system that fuels addiction and leads to ruined lives, fatal overdoses and suicides,” he added. “Those demands have largely been ignored. It’s time for provincial governments to take meaningful action to tackle this national disgrace.”
A report in the Globe and Mail newspaper has linked systemic flaws in the workers’ compensation system to countless addictions that have exacerbated the opioid crisis, which has become a public health emergency in Canada.
The report documented systemic issues that have long been decried by unions and other workers’ advocates:
• Injured workers are often forced back to work – within days of getting hurt, in many cases – before they have healed or received medical treatment and procedures they need, often contradicting the opinions of attending medical professionals.
• Injured workers are often prescribed opioids – covered by the compensation board – to cope with their pain and many have become addicted. Workers who have been forced back to work, then had their benefits cut, have resorted to cheap street drugs, with deadly consequences.
• Recommended treatments and surgeries for many injured workers are denied, limited, or delayed, sometimes for years.
“These are not new issues. Compensation boards use what they call ‘early and safe return to work’ to get injured workers back to work and cut off their benefits. In practice, the ‘early’ part of the equation takes precedence over the ‘safe’ aspect,” Neumann said.
“Often the only way an injured worker can cope after being forced back to work is by being heavily medicated on opioids. These drugs mask the pain and can lead to further injury, addiction and worse.”
The USW is calling on provincial governments across Canada to mandate immediate reforms to their workers’ compensation boards, including:
• Greater acceptance of the opinions of workers’ attending medical practitioners, particularly regarding suitability to return to work and treatment regimes.
• End the practice of sending injured workers back to work while they are still being treated with drugs such as opioids.
• Compensation boards must consider alternative methods of pain management aside from drugs, including extended physiotherapy and psychological care such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
• Compensation boards must ensure better contact with workers who have been placed on drug treatment programs, as well as with their attending medical practitioners. Greater supports must be put in place for injured workers experiencing addiction and mental health issues.
• Prioritize and expedite the claims process and the approval process for treatments and surgeries.
• Compensation boards must be required to track and publish data on addiction cases as well as fatalities resulting from workplace injuries and related addictions.
“Immediate reforms are needed, otherwise the workers’ compensation system will continue to devalue workers’ health and workers’ lives,” Neumann said. “This national disgrace must end.”
By Sara Mojtehedzadeh, Work and Wealth Reporter
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
Sweeping reforms are required to prevent further COVID-19 outbreak among migrant farm labourers, experts have warned the provincial government, as the number of workers diagnosed with the virus surpasses 1,000.
In a letter sent to the ministries of labour, health and agriculture, a group of academics and clinicians have called for a “concerted and collaborative” strategy that includes more robust workplace inspections, stronger anti-reprisal protections for workers, and a reversal of public health guidelines allowing those who have tested positive but are asymptomatic to keep working.
The recommendations from the Migrant Worker Health Expert Working Group also call for collaboration with the provincial workers’ compensation board to “promote and support employer compliance” in reporting illnesses.
A Star tally of media reports and public health unit data puts the number of farm workers diagnosed with the virus at more than 1,000 — after an outbreak announced Monday at a York Region mushroom farm saw 30 workers diagnosed, and a recent outbreak at Nature Fresh Farms in Leamington involved almost 200.
According to data published by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, it has so far registered around 515 COVID-19 related claims from the agricultural sector (around 98 per cent of the claims processed to date have been accepted).
Three migrant workers have died from the virus — most recently, 55-year-old father of four Juan Lopez Chaparro.
“Urgent action is needed to prevent further illness and deaths among this essential workforce,” the working group’s letter sent Monday says.
“Now is the time for the Ontario government to show true leadership to prevent further tragedies, deaths and outbreaks in our fields, nurseries, greenhouses and packing plants.”
Among the recommendations is a call for stronger enforcement, including “proactive, unannounced, comprehensive and ongoing on-site inspections” by the ministry of labour. The working group said inspectors should also engage with migrant workers without supervisors present and in their own language.
“In order for migrant workers to understand why inspections are taking place, and apprehend their rights in the context of inspections and beyond, as well as to comprehend fully the questions that inspectors are asking, they need to be conducted in languages that workers understand,” said Leah Vosko, a professor and Canada Research Chair in the Political Economy of Gender and Work at York University.
The letter says migrant workers need clear information on their right to refuse unsafe work and stronger anti-reprisal protection. In a June 22 webinar for farming-sector safety stakeholders, labour ministry staff said no work refusals have been filed to date by migrant workers, according to the letter.
“Most workers know of an individual who has been deported or kicked out of the temporary agricultural program they are enrolled in which has a huge chilling effect on reporting, and creates a very coercive workplace dynamic,” said Susana Caxaj, an assistant professor at Western University’s Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing.
“Many workers I have worked with, both in research and in a personal capacity, have told me about not seeking medical care, not reporting a workplace injury, not reporting harassment or discrimination, not pursuing a complaint to recover lack of payment, because fear of long-term loss of employment.”
A Star investigation recently found long-standing complaints about living and working conditions at one Norfolk Country farm where some 200 migrant workers were recently diagnosed with the virus.
The recommendations made by the working group, which includes academics from across Canada as well as occupational health experts, also calls for a reversal of recent public health guidance allowing asymptomatic workers who have tested positive for the virus to continue working when deemed “critical to operations.”
Some 760 doctors and health professionals also signed a letter to the government last week demanding an immediate reversal of the guidelines, calling them a “specific and demonstrated public health risk” to migrant workers.
Caxaj said providing accessible, comprehensive health care to migrant workers should be a priority for the ministry.
“Even before the pandemic, migrant agricultural workers in many regions of the province — and the country — depend on employers’ discretion and employer-provided transportation to access health services,” she said. “We know of countless cases where workers have reported health concerns and requested medical care and have been encouraged instead to self-medicate or wait it out.”
The Ministry of Health directed the Star’s queries about the working group’s recommendations to the Ministry of Labour.
In a statement, the province’s labour minister Monte McNaughton said worker safety laws “apply to all workers in Ontario,” including migrant workers, temporary workers and undocumented workers.
“Outsourcing labour does not allow farmers to outsource their health and safety responsibilities,” the statement said.
Janet Deline, spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, said inspections have increased to protect migrant workers, and that are all inspections are “unannounced, comprehensive and focused on ensuring full compliance with our health and safety regulation.”
While the WSIB is an arms-length organization, Deline said both the board and the ministry are reaching out to employers to inform them of their obligations to report illness.
“Eligibility for compensation is not determined by immigration status and the WSIB has interpreters to help foreign workers file claims. Health and safety information from our ministry is also available in multiple languages, including Spanish,” Deline said.
The working group’s letter calls future migrant worker deaths “preventable.”
“We urge the provincial government to show strong leadership in implementing measures to avoid further needless tragedies,” it says.
The now mandatory masks make lip reading, facial cues impossible
Toronto Star, July 9, 2020
For the deaf and hard of hearing, COVID-19 adds extra challenges for communicating in public.
We’ve all been told to avoid touching our face to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But for Thinaja Nadarajah, this public health advice is complicated. Nadarajah is deaf and American Sign Language is her first language.
“There’s a lot of touching of the face when signing,” she says. “We often communicate by touch, like tapping on the shoulder to get someone’s attention.”
Nadarajah is used to navigating what she calls the “hearing community” when she’s out and about. “Sometimes you can catch things on their lips and kind of piece together what they’re saying,” she says. But with COVID-19 and the mandatory wearing of masks by most public-facing employees, that opportunity is gone. “With a mask, I don’t see anything.”
Nadarajah is just one of many members of the deaf community who face additional barriers in communication during COVID-19. While statistics on deaf Canadians are hard to collect due to limitations in surveys and census data, the Canadian Association of the Deaf estimates that there are roughly 357,000 profoundly deaf and deafened Canadians.
While Nadarajah might have passed a pen and paper back and forth to write messages with sales staff and others in the hearing community, that option is no longer available due to the chances of spreading the virus. Instead, Nadarajah uses her phone to type messages.
She recalls a recent visit to Costco’s garden centre in her hometown of Mississauga. A fellow customer helped her find what she was looking for. “One of the customers actually used their phone to communicate with me,” she says. “They typed on their phone, I read it and then I answered on my phone. We just showed phones back and forth.” It’s an example of how retail workers and deaf customers can interact with each other.
Wissam Constantin is the vice-president of the Canadian Association of the Deaf. He acts as an advocate for the deaf community and encourages retailers, restaurant workers and other front-line employees to be especially mindful of the deaf and hard of hearing at this time.
While some deaf individuals, like Nadarajah, are comfortable typing on their phones to communicate, Constantin says everyone has their own preferences and abilities.
“There’s such diversity in the deaf community,” he says. “The customer will be able to tell them how best to communicate with them. It’s important that workers in the hearing community listen and have an open mind.”
Restaurants and grocery stores can equip themselves with a range of tools and apps to help facilitate communication with the deaf community. It could be as simple as a cashier having a pen and paper on hand so that someone wishing to write messages can do so without having to pass materials back and forth.
Another popular option are smartphone apps that create live transcriptions of speech, like Otter.ai. The app is free, so service workers can download it in advance for quicker, smoother conversations.
With a range of tools on hand, workers can then let those in the deaf community direct the method of communication.
“No one should assume that the deaf individual has these apps and ask, ‘Oh, do you have an app that will transcribe what I’m saying?’ That’s really not the best approach,” says Constantin. “If they offer it to you, that is more respectful.”
One of the most useful adaptations to COVID-19 that Nadarajah has discovered are face masks with clear inserts. “That’s been a huge benefit for the deaf and hard of hearing community, especially for those who depend solely on lip reading,” she says.
Nadarajah is employed as a program assistant at Silent Voice, a non-profit organization that serves the deaf community through programs like mentorships, summer camps, meetups and family communication seminars. Silent Voice has received donations of clear masks and Nadarajah hopes the hearing community will use them too.
“It’s more beneficial for hearing people to have them as opposed to the deaf people because then the deaf people would be able to catch what they’re saying on their lips,” she says.
Those who suffer from milder forms of hearing loss also face difficulties with masks and Plexiglas shields muffling and blocking speech from service workers. John Biggs is a radio host and musician who has hearing loss with certain frequencies.
“I have a little trouble when there’s a Plexiglas shield,” Biggs says. “I’m almost trying to go around the corner with shields to hear a little bit better.”
Victoria Stone, an audiologist at Hearing Solutions, says, “Physical distancing can also be a challenge because the instinct for somebody who has hearing loss is to move closer and that’s not always appropriate.”
Stone says video meetings can benefit those with hearing loss since facial expressions fill in some gaps of communication, but speech from a video conference is harder to hear than live speech.
New technology, like Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids that stream directly from a computer, phone or television, does allow for improved transmission of audio.
Stone believes that it is the responsibility of retailers to support all members of the community they serve. And while having adequate signage, pens and paper, apps and clear face masks all help, Nadarajah hopes that, above all, service workers can be patient with members of the deaf community. “There’s going to be more time necessary to communicate,” she says.
Constantin says that adapting services and being mindful of the deaf community will help retailers support other marginalized customers, too.
“Education and awareness for the hearing community doesn’t just mean that it’s going to benefit only the deaf community. It will benefit other groups of individuals, like the blind and deaf-blind, as well.”