Senior management is doubling down on controversial changes at the provincial workers’ compensation board as employees blast the organization’s new “call centre” model and warn that failure to address understaffing and service issues could have “life and death implications” for injured workers, according to documents obtained by the Star.
It comes after the Star revealed that staff at the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board raised concerns last fall about the new service delivery model, calling on the board to bolster declining front-line staff numbers in order to eliminate “embarrassing” wait times for injured workers and prevent staff burnout.
But in a subsequent internal blog post entitled “The Toronto Star called. I answered,” WSIB chief operating officer Brian Jarvis defended the new approach, which he said was successfully speeding up claim decisions, benefit payments and getting workers back on the job more quickly.
Under the new model rolled out in the summer, injured workers’ claims no longer have a dedicated case manager. Instead, claimants go into a general call pool where cases are triaged based on their complexity.
Jarvis’s post said 95 per cent of claim decisions were now made in 10 days, up from 89 per cent in the summer, and 60 per cent of injured workers were back on the job within 10 days, compared to 51 per cent previously.
Jarvis later commented that “simply adding more staff” was not a solution to employees’ concerns about workload, according to a copy of the posts accessed by the Star through a Freedom of Information request.
But the blog has generated fresh blowback from employees, according to 27 staff responses obtained by the Star.
“Mr. Jarvis you may have answered the bell but you are not winning the battle,” said one staff member. “Statistics as we know, can and will be manipulated to make one look favourable”
In another, an employee said medical staff at the board faced a “backlog of work so severe it is taking them in some cases up to a year to process (a claim) and as a result some injured workers’ conditions are worsening to the point of being severely life-threatening or fatal.”
“For quite some time now, hundreds of skilled, experienced and knowledgeable employees have called on senior management to review unmanageable workloads. These calls have gone unanswered,” adds another comment.
“From my viewpoint, I see that we are failing vulnerable workers.”
In response to Jarvis’s blog post, employees panned what they termed the board’s new “call centre model” and asked why staffers were being reprimanded for “being on a call too long.”
“Are we forgetting the reason we are in this business?” one employee asked.
“I was under the impression it was to treat our customers with the kindness and respect they deserve and require and in fact have become accustomed to by the professional and dedicated staff at the WSIB, who are often working through lunches and breaks to keep their workload under control.”
“Just because someone picks up the phone 100% of the time, doesn’t mean they get good service. If this is an example of the way you are utilizing statistics to make business decisions, I have some concerns,” added another staff member.
As previously reported by the Star, average call wait times jumped from 39 seconds in 2017 to almost two-and-a-half minutes following the introduction of the new model. Jarvis told the Star in December that most call times are now under two minutes.
In a statement to the Star Thursday, Jarvis said the board made “process improvements to get people the help they need sooner.”
“While we are continuing to support staff through this transition, our first concern is always improving outcomes for people who are injured or become ill at work. We have seen significant improvements with decisions made faster, first payments delivered faster, and calls answered faster. Those are the kind of service improvements people expect of us.”
Records previously obtained by the Star also show that there has been a 33 per cent increase in allowed lost-time injury claims between 2015 and 2018, from 51,500 to almost 70,000 projected claims this year. But despite this increased volume, the number of front-line staff at the board fell by 9 per cent over the same period.
As previously reported by the Star, a January 2018 poll conducted by the union representing WSIB employees found that 90 per cent of the 263 employees surveyed said work-related stress was impacting their personal lives and 92 per cent attributed the workload issues to understaffing.
“There’s no doubt change can be challenging. Some of you told me you’ve never felt so empowered. Others have not felt as supported as they’d like. I’m committed to working through this together,” Jarvis’s post said.
Two of the responses to Jarvis’s post were positive, and applauded the COO for the “honesty and integrity you lead with.”
But the remaining responses urged senior management to listen to employees.
“Do not punish them. Promote courage, discourage silence and apathy,” said one response.
“Why did it have to come down to an article in a national newspaper to raise awareness?” asked another.
“Managers silently (out of fear I may add) can’t even explain reasons for certain changes. It’s really simple. Let’s take a page from the first step of a 12-step program and admit, ‘we have a problem.’”
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering labour-related issues. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz