Is WSIB Discriminating Against Workers with Mental Illness?

That’s the question that a group of legal clinics and other workers’ rights advocates has put to the Ontario Ombudsman.

In a submission dated November 7th, the group draws attention to Ontario workers suffering from chronic occupational stress disabilities. Their letter emphasizes that the WSIB “continues to apply legislative provisions and policy that have been found unconstitutional and discriminate against individuals with mental health disabilities contract to s. 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

One of the big problems lies within how a worker’s illness develops. Until 1998, it didn’t matter.  All mental health injuries were eligible to be compensated.  However, with the passage of Bill 99, compensation for chronic mental injuries became exempt. Now, if a worker has an acute reaction to a sudden, traumatic event, he or she is eligible for compensation. But if the illness or disability develops as a result of ongoing events (for instance, long-term harassment or bullying at work or continuous exposure to psychological trauma), those claims are exempt from coverage.

Even though the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal—the final level of appeals for WSIB claims—has repeatedly found that the current rules are discriminatory, workers with chronic mental health injuries are stuck. To fight for benefits, they must go through years of expensive and complex appeals. The complaint to the Ombudsman plainly states that “the costs of mounting a Charter challenge, both financial and emotional, are simply to high for many workers to bear,” and at present, there is a backlog of more than 9,000 appeals waiting to be heard.

Case in point: injured worker Wendy Knelsen’s psychiatrist diagnosed her with chronic post-traumatic stress and depression—she says she has been pursuing her appeal for an astounding 10 years.

Let us hope that the Ombudsman hears this complaint and acts on it before any more harm is done. As Knelsen says, “I call it the war within — because PTSD really is…. It’s tearing families apart, forcing them into poverty, some (workers) are killing themselves. And their response is, workers with stress can wait.”