Since March 21, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) staff members across Ontario have been staging walkouts over systemic workload problems that are causing tremendous stress and impacting the organization’s ability to serve injured workers.
The rolling protests began with about 100 people demonstrating outside the downtown Toronto office and will cover all 14 WSIB locations in the province.
According to the Ontario Compensation Employees Union (OCEU), chronic staff shortages have led to severe workload issues and, consequently, an epidemic of injury claims.
One OCEU newsletter states that around 800 short-term disability claims were filed annually by WSIB workers – 3,326 unionized employees in total – from 2014 to 2017.
Mental health accounted for 28 per cent of the short-term disability claims, more so than any other factor. The union also states that 56 per cent of the long-term disability claims between 2014 and 2017 were due to mental health problems.
“It’s a shockingly high number,” says Harry Goslin, OCEU president. “When I shared some of these numbers with the Institute for Work and Health, they literally gasped.”
Andrea Bastion*, a long-time case manager at WSIB, says that workload pressures have contributed to both mental and physical injuries. She cites the frequency of repetitive strain injuries as a result of higher volumes being handled by fewer workers.
Understaffed and overworked
According to Bastion, workload has always been a problem at WSIB. But she says the situation has worsened over the past few years as workers are not replaced when they leave or off work due to injury.
“It’s [been surprising] because we see the empty desks, we see the people leaving and they are just not being replaced,” she says.
Based on the statistics in OCEU’s newsletter, the unionized workforce has contracted by over five per cent since 2014. Simultaneously, as reported by the Toronto Star, the workload has only increased and there’s been a “33 per cent increase in allowed lost-time injury claims between 2015 and 2018.”
In a 2018 poll conducted for OCEU, 92 per cent of respondents said that staff shortages were causing workload stress.
“On a regular basis, we have people coming an hour before they start, stay an hour later, work through their lunches or their breaks, just to try to keep up and take care of the needs of injured workers,” Goslin says.
Goslin says over 800 WSIB staff members are part of multiple group grievances related to high volumes of work.
WSIB not acknowledging the problem: OCEU
In the 2018 OCEU-organized survey, 90 per cent of respondents said that work-related stress is impacting their personal lives. Similarly, the results of the past two WSIB employee engagement surveys show poor scores on multiple metrics.
The WSIB has never acknowledged a systemic workload problem, according to Goslin. He says the board has been claiming that it’s making changes to processes and bringing in new technology that will resolve any workload problems – if they exist.
The union has suggested finding a “credible independent party” to conduct a workload assessment. But Goslin says that the board is not interested.
“It just makes no sense to me,” he says. “You can bring in somebody independent. You don’t have to take the union’s word for it, and you can do an independent arm’s length study. And if you do have problems, let’s identify those and let’s fix it.”
Instead, the WSIB has contracted an auditor to develop a ‘workforce assessment tool’ to help the organization figure out how to manage resources. Part of the exercise involves asking staff to tabulate the amount of time it takes them to perform their duties.
But in an email petition, workers say that this study excludes “the time required for various mandatory meetings, the time [spent] learning policy changes, process changes, and the time required to review data and take all appropriate action.”
“For case managers, they forgot to ask the amount of time it takes them to make a decision,” Goslin says. “[But] that’s their job to make decisions! So we are worried about how accurate the workload study is going to be.”
Impact on injured workers
Bastion says that WSIB’s new service delivery model, reductions in staff training, and increasing micro-management have all been factors contributing to poorer service for injured workers and additional stress for the board’s staff.
While the WSIB has said that 95 per cent of claims are handled within 10 days, Bastion says those numbers only reflect the fact that the vast majority of claims are simple and processed quickly.
“Those aren’t the claims that case managers are spending [a lot of time on],” she says.
Bastion also points out that WSIB doesn’t only handle new claims but also caters to older files of injured workers who have “recurrent issues” and “ongoing requirements.”
The astonishing number of rejected claims by WSIB in recent years can in part be attributed to newer managers not receiving the required training to correctly apply complicated policies, she says.
“So they are answering the phone and getting questions that they don’t necessarily know how to manage,” Bastion says. “And of course that creates more work because you’re sort of learning [on the job] because they have decreased the training department [staff] as well.”
According to Bastion, the stress faced by WSIB workers is intrinsically linked to their inability to serve injured workers. These are workers who, the employee engagement survey reveals, care about what they’re doing and feel a sense of purpose in catering to the injured workers.
“It’s very difficult when you get one phone call after the other of workers who need assistance, and if you don’t feel like you can meet those needs it wears you down,” she says.
“The truth is that people who work at the board are really trying to a good job,” Bastion says. “[But] we don’t have any control over the system we’ve been asked to work in.”
*The name of the WSIB worker has been changed to protect their identity