Six years after suffering a devastating injury on an Ontario farm, Leroy Thomas says he’s finally hopeful about the future.
The former Jamaican seasonal worker dislocated his spine while working on a Simcoe, Ont., tobacco farm in 2017, an injury that left him unable to continue as a farm worker and in deep financial difficulty after his injury compensation ran out. at work. he out after 12 weeks.
Now, after the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeal Tribunal found that he and migrant workers injured in similar situations deserved better treatment, Thomas says he’s finally feeling optimistic.
“I felt devastated, I have faced times of hunger, it has been the most difficult time of my life. But now I feel a little better,” the 48-year-old said in a telephone interview from Jamaica.
“I feel like justice has been done.”
When asked about the court ruling issued this month, the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board said it will conduct a review of how claims from people in the federal seasonal agricultural worker program are handled. .
Thomas, who began working as a seasonal migrant worker on Ontario farms in 2001, was climbing onto a cart while working on a farm in 2017 when he fell. He heard a snap on his back as he landed on concrete and felt excruciating pain. His employer took him to a hospital where he learned he had dislocated his spine.
Thomas said he was repatriated after the injury because it prevented him from continuing to work on the farm. Once back in Jamaica, he said he could not afford to continue medical treatment because the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board suspended long-term income loss benefits after 12 weeks.
Thomas said he also could not continue working as a barber in Jamaica, a job he held for years while not working in Ontario.
He and three other migrant workers injured in similar situations went to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal to ask for better compensation.
The court ruled this month that the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board erred in assuming that seasonal migrant workers were eligible for up to 12 weeks of compensation for lost wages through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program if they had resulted in injuries.
It noted that the loss of earnings provisions of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act assumed that after three months, all workers could return to work in Ontario or their home country, without regard to actual circumstances. of the workers, such as whether they had recovered from their injury, were able to work or find employment.
The court ruled that was not appropriate.
“It is not appropriate to limit your entitlement to long-term (job loss) benefits to 12 weeks in all cases, without taking into account your individual circumstances,” he wrote.
“For the reasons set forth in this decision, the panel concludes: Long-term benefits (loss of income) for migrant farmworkers should be based on their ability to earn money in their actual local/regional labor market.”
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board said its review of claims handling in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program is expected to take six months.
“This was a decision we made that takes into account the latest decision and our determination to treat people with humanity and respect, taking into account the realities of their local labor markets,” spokeswoman Christine Arnott wrote in a statement.
“This review will clarify how claims are adjudicated and determine whether previous decisions also need to be adjusted. People whose claims are under review will be contacted directly by the WSIB in the coming weeks.”
A lawyer for Thomas and the three other migrant workers in the case called the court’s ruling “significant.”
“A fundamental problem with temporary worker programs was that workers were discarded when they were injured,” said Maryth Yachnin, a lawyer at a Toronto-based legal clinic.
“This decision agrees that this practice is incorrect.”
Yachnin said he hopes other injured migrant workers will be able to seek compensation in light of the ruling.
“We hope that other migrant workers learn about this decision and, if they have been permanently injured on the job here in Ontario, we hope that they will reach out and seek the support they should have received,” he said.
Thomas said he has contacted his case manager and will begin the process to obtain his lost income in the coming days. With the money he receives, he said he hopes to pay off his debts and start a business.
“I could get my life back on track,” he said.