WCB review hears concerns from labour
IQALUIT — Workers should be eligible for compensation if they injure themselves performing any aspect of their job, says Mary Lou Sutton-Fennel, an executive member of Local 5 of the Nunavut Employees Union.
Sutton-Fennel was one of three presenters who appeared before a legislative-review panel mandated with gathering public input on the Workers’ Compensation and Safety Acts here Tuesday night.
The panel has been travelling to communities in both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut to hear from stakeholders.
Sutton-Fennel, who also serves on the Northern Territories Federation of Labour as first vice-president, told the panel the maximum amounts paid to workers has to be indexed to the cost of living.
For example, she said, harvesters and others living a similar lifestyle, such as carvers, are not being adequately represented.
If harvesterd are injured preparing their equipment, under current legislation they aren’t eligible for compensation.
“Preparing of hides, processing of meat are inclusive activities for harvesting and therefore need to be eligible for compensation,” she said.
Sutton-Fennel also pointed to the need for a “duty to accommodate” clause to be incorporated into the act. Currently, the Workers’ Compensation Board isn’t required to find jobs for non-unionized workers in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut after they’re injured.
She said members of her union suggest a system similar to Ontario’s be adopted, even though some changes would need to be made for the system to work well in the north. For example, she said, Nunavut businesses are much smaller than those in Ontario – a factor which would have to be taken into account.
The issue of duty to accommodate in relation to substance abusers, in both union and non-unionized jobs, is not recognized in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Sutton-Fennel pointed out.
“It’s a difficult and contentious issue,” she admitted. “Few employers see substance dependency as an injury.” But she says this is the most serious disability in the northern workplace.
Currently there is one workers’ advisor for the two territories located in Yellowknife, who is hired on contract for 1,000 hours a year. This position, Sutton-Fennel said, should move from a mediator-in-disputes-type to more of a worker’s advocate role.
She also suggested that more funding is needed to hire workers’ advisors, and at least one should be located in Nunavut.
The workplace has become more stressful and demanding, Sutton-Fennel said, and recognition of that is not enough. Diagnosis and care are also necessary.
Language used in the acts and on forms required to apply for compensation should also be easily understood, she suggested, a thought elaborated upon by Iqaluit’s Mary Ellen Thomas.
Thomas said she did a “readability” test of the documents on the health and safety laws, written for both employers and employees, and calculated it would take about 16.8 years of education to read and understand them.
She urged the panel to recommend clear, plain, readable language, to get information to the public.
She also raised the issue of post-traumatic stress syndrome, especially how it relates to Inuit and their experiences in the school system.
“Many think this doesn’t affect the workplace, but it does in terms of suicide and absenteeism,” Thomas said. “We must make it mandatory for everybody, no matter what size their business that they have somewhere to go for help.”
Kevin King, who represents the national component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada brought his perspective to the panel as well.
“The Canadian labour code should be extended to all workplaces in Canada as it pertains to occupational safety and health,” he said after his presentation. “The Fair Practises Act and Safety Act as identified in territorial legislation doesn’t go far enough to represent the rights of either abled or disabled workers.”
Also brought to the panel was a request that the board be required to include three members each from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut and that the chair position be rotated between the two territories.
The seven-member legislative review panel is about halfway through its public consultation process investigating what in the acts should be changed and what should stay the same.
A discussion paper will be sent out this summer to interested parties and then the panel will tour the territories again, visiting Iqaluit in late August, to double-check its findings.
A written report will be submitted to the ministers responsible by December, 2001. The panel welcomes both oral and written submissions up to July 15.