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Saturday, June 15, 2024
WSIB tribunal ruling breathes new life into case of Jeleel Stewart
Jeleel Stewart in 2008 after the injury he sustained working at a NOTL nursery.

An advocate for a migrant worker from Jamaica who was badly hurt while working in Niagara-on-the-Lake hopes the man will finally receive compensation for his injuries in the wake of a decision by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal.

On Sept. 15, the tribunal ruled in favour of four other seasonal workers – including one from Niagara-on-the-Lake – who were injured on the job.

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

Jane Andres is among a group of people advocating on behalf of Jeleel Stewart, who was working at Mori Nurseries in 2008 under the same federal program, and was seriously injured when a forklift crushed his left hand, severing his tendons and nerves.

He has been unable to work since and in the intervening years, his health has steadily declined.

While the tribunal found the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board was wrong to deny benefits to the four workers and has cleared the way for Stewart to make his own appeal, Andres remains wary.

“It’s already been appealed once,” she said.

Stewart, who was 33 years old when he was hurt, returned home to Jamaica three months after the accident and has been unable to work since.

Now, at 49, his health has deteriorated over the years and a stroke last summer has left him unable to speak.

He has also had a stent implanted in 2022 to help with ongoing heart problems.

“He is a mere shell of the man we met in 2007,” Andres said, adding that his wife, Suzan, spoke for him at a meeting with his caseworker from the Toronto-based IAVGO Community Legal Clinic, via Zoom on Oct. 20.

“When he can speak, it can only be very briefly. He simply can’t get enough oxygen,” Andres said, adding that Stewart was released from hospital only a short time before the meeting.

His caseworker from the legal clinic, David Arruda, said the Stewarts want to move forward with a new appeal to the tribunal.

“The hope is we can have it scheduled within the next few months,” he said. “Maybe in January or February. It’s already been stagnant for so long.”

The workplace board’s spokesperson, Christine Arnott, previously told the Lake Report that the review of the tribunal’s ruling would be “comprehensive” and take about six months to complete.

The review, she said, “will clarify how the claims are adjudicated and will determine whether previous decisions should also be adjusted.”

At the same time, Niagara Falls MPP Wayne Gates is calling on the Ford government to pass his private members’ bill: the Respecting Injured Workers Act (Workplace Safety and Insurance Amendment).

The act would revamp the board’s claims process, removing “deeming” when considering claims of injured workers.

Deeming 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.

Andres, meanwhile, is upset by the treatment of seasonal workers and their families when injuries, and in some cases, deaths occur.

“Canadians don’t have to watch (workers) suffer and die of starvation or illness related to the injuries that occurred on our soil, in our communities,” she said.

“We don’t have to watch families grieve when they get the news that their father or son or loved one died thousands of miles away.”

As for the potential appeal on behalf of Stewart, Andres is worried it might be too late, given his health.

“His wife is beyond exhausted from caring for him the past year or more. The reality is we are expecting the call at any time to say he has passed away.” 

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