Workplace Safety and Insurance Board staff rallied outside their own downtown Toronto offices Thursday, calling on their employer to address chronic staffing shortages and issues with a new “call centre model” — criticized by some for compromising service to vulnerable injured workers.
The protest comes after numerous complaints by workers and their union about unmanageable workloads and internal “chaos,” according to documents previously obtained by the Star through a Freedom of Information request.
Fred Hahn, Ontario president for the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents WSIB staff, said employees are under “enormous stress” as a result of staffing reductions and “repeated organizational change” at the board.
“They are the backbone of this system” he said. “Without these workers, there would be no workers’ compensation system.”
By noon Thursday, around 100 WSIB employees had gathered on their lunch break to rally outside the building — the first of 13 protests organized for the coming weeks at WSIB offices around Ontario.
As previously reported by the Star, a 2018 poll conducted by the union found that 90 per cent of the 263 employees surveyed said work-related stress was impacting their personal lives and 92 per cent attributed workload issues to understaffing at the WSIB.
In July, the board unrolled a new service delivery model that removed dedicated case managers from injured workers’ files. Under the new model, claimants now go into a general pool and are triaged based on the complexity of the case.
“We recently empowered more of our staff to make decisions and work to their full professional capacity so that people who need our help get it faster. Now eligibility decisions are being made sooner, first payments delivered faster, and calls answered the first time,” said board spokesperson Christine Arnott in a statement.
“We know these types of internal process changes can be thrilling for some and challenging to others. We will continue to support staff through this transition.”
In internal communications obtained by the Star, employees have blasted the new “call centre model,” which they claim is creating service issues that could have “life and death implications” for injured workers.
“Accident rates are going up while resolutions to (injured worker) claims are going down,” said one employee. “There are not enough people to process work and queues keep piling up, while people that are disabled from a workplace injury are waiting for someone to get back to them. I find that embarrassing.”
Karl Crevar, who injured his back on the job in 1987 and has been an injured worker advocate ever since, attended Thursday’s rally because of the “emotional and financial impact” on accident victims caused by reduced staffing and the new service model.
The records obtained by the Star’s Freedom of Information request show 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. There are currently 785 case managers and adjudicators at the board, down from 815 in 2015.
CUPE staffer Fred Ho said the result is “amazingly large” numbers of staff on short-term disability leave — and reduced service for some of the most vulnerable injured workers. While the board used to employ 12 advanced practical nurses who work directly with critically injured workers, some of whom have terminal occupational diseases, it now employs two for the entire province.
CUPE said it has asked the board to conduct a workload study, but said the organization has so far refused.
The WSIB did not respond to the Star’s questions about whether it had agreed to conduct a workload survey, or whether it had hired any additional staff to address front-line shortages.
Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering labour-related issues. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz