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Letter: Justice delayed, justice denied for injured workers

Workplace NL chief executive officer Dennis Hogan and Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh speak at a news conference at the Workplace NL offices on Forest Road in February.
Workplace NL CEO Dennis Hogan and Service NL Minister Sherry Gambin-Walsh speak at a news conference at the Workplace NL offices on Forest Road in St. John’s, February 2018. — Telegram file photo

When we go to work to support ourselves and our families, we have the reasonable expectation of returning home in the same condition as when we left. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Workplace accidents and industrial illnesses (both physical and mental) can impact any one of us at any time.

It is for this reason that government has legislated protection for workers in our province in the form of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to prevent accidents/illnesses from occurring and the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act to ensure medical intervention and financial compensation when they do.

While the end goal of the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act (Worker’s Comp) is to return the injured/ill worker back to his/her pre-injury position, that may or may not always be the case. Some injured workers require substantial rehabilitation, some end up returning to work in a modified or new position, some end up retraining for a new career and some workers never return to the workforce at all.

Of course, nobody wants to be injured, but when it happens it is important to ensure that our worker’s compensation system is fair and responsive. It is also important that injured workers receive timely adjudication of their claims and that they are provided with a proper mechanism for appeal if required.

Now for those who may not be familiar with how the system works, basically if a claim is submitted by an injured employee which is not accepted by Workplace NL, that injured worker is entitled to appeal the decision. This appeal process begins as an internal appeal to Workplace NL and, if unsuccessful, can proceed on to the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Review Division. This independent agency will then hear the appeal and render a binding decision as to whether Workplace NL has applied the act, regulations and/or policies correctly, and consequently whether the injured worker is entitled to the benefits requested.

Based on the Workplace Health, Safety and Compensation Act, this external appeal process is supposed to be completed within 60 days. However, the reality is that in the vast majority of, if not all cases, this process is taking anywhere from six months to over a year. Of course, while all this is happening, how is the injured worker supposed to meet his/her financial obligations? I mean, just put yourself in this situation with a family, a mortgage and bills to pay. How long could you wait and live off your “savings” or your credit card while awaiting a decision? I suspect most would answer, not very long.

So, what is causing the delay? Well for one thing, the act allows for up to seven commissioners at the review division to hear these cases, yet we seem to have been stuck on only three or four commissioners for years. Also, only the chief review commissioner and one other is full time, while the others are contractual people, paid by the case, moving in and out of the system fairly frequently and not necessarily available as needed to get through the outstanding appeals in a timely manner.

Given the fact that we have a healthy injury fund at Workplace NL, combined with the ability to hire more commissioners and/or make more of them permanent, why do we continue to let injured workers wait and in doing so continue to breach our provincial legislation?

For those who would say that there are people out there “abusing the system,” I would suggest that we shouldn’t penalize those with legitimate claims because of the actions of a few. If there is abuse, seek it out and deal with it appropriately.

I therefore call on the minister of Service NL to step in and fix this problem. It’s time for injured workers in this province to receive the justice they deserve and are entitled to by law.
Remember, it could be you or I trying to navigate this system tomorrow.

Paul Lane, Independent MHA
District of Mount Pearl-Southlands

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