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Thursday, April 18, 2024
Decision to continue hearing Jeleel Stewart appeal up to tribunal: WSIB
Jeleel Stewart in 2008 after his injury while working at Mori Gardens. File
File

What happens now to the case of a Jamaican man who was injured on the job as a seasonal worker in Niagara-on-the-Lake is up in the air after the man died last month. 

Jeleel Stewart, who was 50 years old at the time of his death, was working at Mori Nurseries in 2008 when he was seriously injured in an accident involving a forklift.

His left hand was crushed, severing tendons and nerves.

Unable to work and support his family in the years since the accident, his health steadily declined, said Jane Andres of Niagara Workers Welcome, the Niagara-on-the-Lake group that advocates for, and provides support to, seasonal agricultural workers.

“Jeleel Stewart passed away on Wednesday, Jan. 24 in Spanishtown, Jamaica, after struggling with work-related injuries for the past 15 years,” Andres stated in a news release announcing Stewart’s death.

Unable to find work that he could do with one hand, Stewart struggled with serious depression over extended periods of time, Andres said.

“Due to constant pain and stress, his health deteriorated significantly the past two years,” she wrote.

Matters were made worse when his disability claim was denied by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

Appeals to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal were also denied.

But a subsequent tribunal ruling in favour of four other injured seasonal workers, including one who was working in Niagara-on-the-Lake, raised hopes that Stewart’s case would be reheard. 

In the case involving the four workers, the tribunal said the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board was wrong to deny claims to compensation by the workers who were hired under the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and that the workers were entitled to proper loss-of-earnings benefits and retraining support.

The safety and insurance board said it would study the decision and that its investigation would take upward of six months to complete.

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the board said it was “saddened to learn of Mr. Stewart’s passing and our thoughts are with his family and many loved ones both in Jamaica and here in Ontario.”

Speaking on behalf of the board, communications specialist Marianna Ciappa added that it has launched a review to “ensure we are taking a fair and consistent approach that recognizes the realities of people’s local markets after they return home.”

The review is ongoing, she said.

As for the status of Stewart’s appeal, Ciappa said that was a matter for the tribunal to decide.

But tribunal spokesperson Guylaine Mageau said the they could not comment on individual appeals coming before them.

David Arruda, Stewart’s caseworker from the Toronto-based IAVGO Community Legal Clinic, who was to represent Stewart at the hearing, said he could not shed more light on what may come next.

“There has to be further discussion (with Stewart’s family),” he said.”Considering everything that has been going on, those conversations haven’t happened yet.”

Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates was saddened to hear of Stewart’s death and offered his condolences to his family. 

It is workers like Stewart that he is trying to help through Bill 57, a private member’s bill he reintroduced late last year that would help seasonal workers receive compensation if they are injured on the job while in Canada.

Workers like Stewart are victims of what Gates referred to as “deeming,” which occurs when the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board decides a worker is able to earn money they are not actually earning, on the basis of suitable and available work they do not actually have.

This is something Gates said hurts workers and winds up costing taxpayers money when the injured workers are forced to apply for social assistance such as Ontario Works or the Ontario Disability Support Program.

“Fifty per cent of the people who are injured are living in poverty,” Gates said. 

Andres agreed with Gates.

“We have been asking (the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) to end the harmful practice of deeming and to provide proper compensation to Jeleel Stewart and his family since 2010,” Andres said in an email.

Stewart leaves behind his wife, Suzan, and five children – Kemar, Shyan, Jamie, Ashley and Jamar.

Niagara Workers Welcome is raising money to help cover funeral costs for the family.

Donations can be made via e-transfer to niagaraworkerswelcome@gmail.com.

hutton@niagaranow.com

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