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Monday, April 15, 2024
Signs point to family continuing Jeleel Stewart appeal, legal rep says
Jeleel Stewart, left, with his wife Suzan in 2020. File

The fight to compensate a seasonal farmworker injured on the job in Niagara-on-the-Lake is likely to continue despite the man’s death earlier this year.

David Arruda of the Toronto-based IAVGO Community Legal Clinic was to represent the man, Jeleel Stewart, 51, at a hearing that was scheduled for last month.

Stewart’s latest appeal was to be heard on Feb. 1 but after years of declining health precipitating from his workplace injury, he died on Jan. 24, just days before his hearing.

Arruda has spoken with Stewart’s widow, Suzan, and they are contemplating what to do next.

“Although it’s not the norm, it’s not uncommon for the estate to take on the case,” Arruda said.

“What we need to do is get confirmation from (his) family. I don’t think, in theory, that will be a problem. We’re just trying to figure out how to proceed.”

Stewart was in the midst of appealing a previous Workplace Safety and Insurance Board decision, denying the Jamaican man compensation for an injury he sustained while working at Mori Nurseries in 2008.

He was seriously injured in an incident involving a forklift, resulting in his left hand being crushed, severing tendons and nerves.

He was subsequently denied compensation by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and two subsequent appeals were denied by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal.

New life was breathed into Stewart’s case, however, when the tribunal ruled in favour of four other injured seasonal workers, including one who was working in Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

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.

In response to the decision, the board has launched a review of the policy. Earlier this month, board spokesperson Marianna Ciappa said that the review is ongoing.

Stewart’s Feb. 1 hearing was originally scheduled for April 9 but was moved up due to his declining health.

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

In Stewart’s case, he was deemed to be able to work at a job such as a gas bar attendant in Niagara, despite him living in Jamaica.

It’s something Niagara Falls MPP Wayne 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.

In a previous interview with The Lake Report, Gates said the policy forces workers onto social assistance.

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

Late last year, Gates re-introduced a private member’s bill late last year that would eliminate the “deeming” policy.

Bill 57, he said, would help seasonal workers receive compensation if they are injured on the job while in Canada.

NOTL residents Jane Andres and Jodie Godwin have been advocating on behalf of Stewart. The pair first met him at a church service back in 2007.

The two women have helped support Stewart and his family ever since he was injured, including over the holidays last December to provide for Christmas and now, for funeral expenses.

“Jodie and I are preparing an impact statement which we will send to IAVGO and will be available when his appeal is being presented,” Andres said, adding that Gates’ legislation needs to be passed to help all seasonal agricultural workers who are injured while working in Canada.

Arruda, meanwhile, said IAVGO would look into survivor benefits for Suzan.

The main thing, he said, will be getting the appropriate documents to Stewart’s family and getting them filled out.

hutton@niagaranow.com

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