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WSIB staffers decry chaos caused by ‘broken’ system that’s putting injured workers at risk

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Chronic understaffing, long wait times, and chaotic case management at Ontario’s workers’ compensation board are putting vulnerable accident victims at risk, compromising the integrity of the provincial compensation system, and jeopardizing financial accountability, according to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board’s own employees.

Staff made the criticisms in response to a September blog post by WSIB president Tom Teahen, which solicited feedback on whether the board was making Ontario a safer place to work, improving recovery for injured workers, meeting customers’ needs and acting in a financially responsible manner.

On all four counts, the 60 responses obtained by the Star through a Freedom of Information request, show the answer was overwhelmingly no.

“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.”

In another post, an employee complained they were “frustrated” by delays faced by injured workers calling the board for help, some of whom have post-traumatic stress disorder. The employee said call wait times could sometimes mount to 20 minutes — enough time for “somebody to give up and take their own life.”

“It is not unheard of that clients complain of waiting in excess of 30 minutes to reach the right person,” said another. “If you can’t help an injured worker who’s (sic) literal livelihood depends on the WSIB within a reasonable time frame, that’s an incredible shortfall.”

The September blog post came in the wake of a new service delivery model — rolled out in July at the board — which aims to make the compensation claim process more effective and “help people recover and return to work quicker.” The change came in response to rising claim duration and recovery times.

Under the new model, injury claims no longer have a dedicated case manager. Instead, callers go into a general pool and are triaged based on the complexity of the case. The idea is that complex claims get more focused attention from experienced staff, while uncontentious claims are processed more efficiently.

WSIB chief operating officer Brian Jarvis said in an interview with the Star last week that the new model experienced some early “bumps on the road,” but said statistics already show 95 per cent of injured workers are now receiving compensation decisions within 10 days, up from 89 per cent in May, and that 60 per cent were back on the job in days, up from 51 per cent.

“We’re trying to help the injured workers that come to us every day who need our help and need our support and we’re seeing examples of how we’re doing better recently than we were prior to making these changes,” he said.

“The improvements were really designed to get the right people getting the right claims at the right time,” he added, noting other positive new changes included giving workers an option to upload documents electronically rather than using fax or mail.

In response to Teahen’s September blog, some board employees expressed skepticism.

“I beg you to look beyond the stats to ask questions about what is not being captured,” said one. “To really listen to what many of us are saying to you on this blog and realize the system is putting some of these workers at risk of being lost within the system.”

Statistics obtained by the Star through its Freedom of Information request, which also sought all records pertaining to the new service delivery model, show average call wait times were up from 39 seconds in 2017 to almost two-and-a-half minutes in 2018. Jarvis said wait times are now under two minutes “on most days.”

Numerous employees complained that losing ownership over claim files meant they had to start from scratch each time an injured worker or an employer called them.

“As all of our telephone conversations are recorded, there is no reason senior management would not (be) able to hear the stress, fear, anger and uncertainty that front-line staff hear every day,” said one employee.

“I continue to see obscenely long claims durations (which, of course, is not financially responsible) and an inability to attend to every claim to provide the service each worker, employer or provider deserve.”

“Please do not add further chaos to an already broken model,” said another.

While numerous employees said there was a need for change at the board, the vast majority raised significant concerns about the new approach — and more importantly, the lack of staff available to make it work.

Staff are “burning out due to the unmanageable caseloads yet we are being told to ‘do more with less.’ Not sure how that is humanly possible, ” said one employee, while another called the number of empty desks due to stress leave “staggering.”

“This work environment not only adds undue stress, it is teetering on compromising my professional standards, which I am not OK with,” added one registered nurse at the board.

The records obtained by the Star 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. There are currently 785 case managers and adjudicators at the board, down from 815 in 2015.

“We are drowning,” said one employee in response to Teahen’s blog.

Harry Goslin, president of the Ontario Compensation Employees Union, said he has “continued to raise concerns about rising work volumes.”

“The WSIB on the other hand maintains the view that there is not a workload problem,” he told the Star.

As previously reported by the Star, a January 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 the workload issues to understaffing at the WSIB.

Asked if the board would commit to hiring more front-line staff, Jarvis said his organization would replace staff who retired or were moved within the organization, but said hiring was “based on the data that shows how much activities and claims we have.”

Subscribe to the Star to support reporting and analysis from award-winning reporters like Sara Mojtehedzadeh

Employees made clear in their responses to Teahen’s blog that they cared deeply about serving Ontarians and the integrity of the compensation system.

“Our founding father created a fair compensation system whereby workers gave up their right to sue their employers in exchange for a fair and compassionate system that adjudicated (a claim) on the basis of its own merit,” said one 30-year veteran.

“How can adjudicators make the best possible decisions if they are short-changed in training, do not have enough people to do the job, have unreasonable time frames, and have processes in place that short-change the worker?”

“We as the employees of WSIB do care about the outcomes for our workers and the experience they have,” added another.

“We want to be proud of where we work and say what good things we are doing. Right now I am not feeling that.”

Sara Mojtehedzadeh is a Toronto-based reporter covering labour issues. Follow her on Twitter: @saramojtehedz

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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