06/25/2019 10:51 EDT | Updated 06/26/2019 13:17 EDT

Ontario Legal Aid Cuts Force Injured Workers Clinic To Lay Off Staff

The clinic for injured workers is losing four frontline staff members.

Chris Young/Canadian Press
Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks as former attorney general Caroline Mulroney looks on during an announcement at the Queen's Park Legislature in Toronto on Aug. 9, 2018. 

This story is a part of UNAIDED, a HuffPost Canada series that examines the effects of recent funding cuts to Ontario’s legal aid system and the impacts on the vulnerable people who rely on it to navigate our complicated justice system.

TORONTO — A legal clinic that serves workers injured on the job is laying off 40 per cent of its staff in the wake of cuts to legal aid made by Ontario’s government. 

Toronto’s Injured Workers Community (IWC) Legal Clinic is laying off one staff lawyer and three community legal workers, director John McKinnon told HuffPost Canada Tuesday. 

IWC advocates on behalf of workers who get injured on the job and represents workers who can’t afford a lawyer during appeals with the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). The clinic’s collective agreement states layoffs have to hit employees with the least seniority first, so the four most recent hires will lose their jobs.

“They were hired to be the future of the clinic, so it’s really unfortunate to lose these people,” McKinnon said. 

“It’s just gut-wrenching to think about how we’re going to continue to serve the injured workers’ community.”

Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic
Staff at the Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic pose for a photo at their office. Each pile of documents relates to only one case, which staff says shows how complicated the law is around workers compensation.

The clinic’s $1.2-million budget is being cut by $264,000. 

McKinnon said the clinic’s clients are often in deep poverty, homeless or on the verge of homelessness by the time they contact IWC. Many, like Toronto father Siva Arulnanthysivam, are struggling with mental health issues as a result of their situation. 

The 49-year-old suffered nerve damage after slicing his hand open while working as a lube technician. He told HuffPost that the clinic’s service changed his life. 

At first, Arulnanthysivam was hesitant to seek help.

“I said, ‘Legal aid is free. I don’t trust those people ... They’re not going to help me,’” he said.

Arulnanthysivam said he quit his job after his employer, who cannot be named because his case is ongoing, forced him to keep working for two weeks even though he couldn’t use his right hand. Then he was denied WSIB benefits and Employment Insurance because he had quit.

The company didn’t report the accident until WSIB came knocking, he said.

Now, I don’t have a life. I can’t go back to work ... I was in depression.Siva Arulnanthysivam

“If the person quit the job, there is no liability. You can’t get any money … That is absolutely wrong. They forced me to do the work [when I was hurt],” he said.

“Now, I don’t have a life. I can’t go back to work ... I was in depression.”

Arulnanthysivam’s case worker at IWC, David Newberry, was able to appeal WSIB’s decision and get him compensation. Newberry is still working to get him compensation for the wages he lost while waiting for surgery. 

“I’m really thankful for the legal aid service,” Arulnanthysivam said. “I’m very proud of these people I met.”

IWC is one of three specialty clinics in Ontario that serve injured workers. The Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario (IAVGO) is also considering laying off some of their nine employees, staff lawyer Ivana Petricone told HuffPost. Its $1-million budget is being cut by $250,000.

Legal Aid Ontario wants clinics to merge

Legal Aid Ontario, the agency that funds all 73 legal aid clinics across the province, wants IWC to merge with IAVGO and a third clinic, the Toronto Workers Health and Safety Legal Clinic. 

The agency said that will let them save money on operating costs, but the clinics argue that the cuts exceed all their spending on rent and expenses other than staff. 

“If we were to physically shut down the office and operate on the sidewalk out of our briefcases … still, we would need to find over $100,000 to deal with the cuts. We would still have to lay off a couple of people,” McKinnon said.

“Cuts of this magnitude are not intended to encourage clinics to find efficiencies, they’re intended to close clinics.”

A spokesman for Legal Aid Ontario said that he can’t speak to the specifics of an individual budget, because the clinics decide for themselves how to spend the money they get. 

Cuts of this magnitude are not intended to encourage clinics to find efficiencies, they’re intended to close clinics.John McKinnon

“What we would point out is that the three workers clinics receive approximately $300,000 in lease funding which is more than any other single clinic in the system,” spokesman Graeme Burk told HuffPost by email. 

He also said that based on quarterly reports, the three workers clinics spent $220,000 less than they had budgeted for last year. 

Legal Aid Ontario released its plan to cut spending on June 12 after the Ontario government announced that it would slash $164 million in funding for the agency over the next three years, which amounts to about 40 per cent of its total budget. The cuts made this year will save about $70 million to $75 million, Legal Aid Ontario said. 

The agency is reducing its own operating budget by 30 per cent, cutting services for immigrants and refugees and cutting funding for clinics like IWC. 

Instead of hitting all clinics with a uniform, across-the-board cut, Legal Aid Ontario decided to cut the budgets of specialty clinics and clinics in Toronto more drastically than others. This was done to preserve services in rural areas and the north, Legal Aid Ontario staff told HuffPost previously.

Another clinic, which supports tenants, might also have to lay people off

IWC’s board voted Monday night to move forward with the layoffs, but it will also appeal Legal Aid Ontario’s funding decision, look for “all possible” ways to reduce the clinic’s operating budget and ask for a meeting with the province’s new attorney general, Doug Downey.

The government is helping Legal Aid Ontario find savings with “carefully considered measures,” a spokesman for the ministry of the attorney general told HuffPost by email.

“While our government remains committed to ensuring legal aid services are available to low-income Ontarians, we are also working to restore accountability and trust in our province’s public finances and protect frontline services and important programming,” spokesman Brian Gray said.

“The Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic is one of three worker clinics that operate in the same area of law, all serving injured workers. They are all located in downtown Toronto (two of them a few blocks from each other,)” he added.

“It is our government’s expectation that legal aid clinics will prioritize frontline services to ensure they remain strong and protect direct services for eligible Ontarians who need legal aid.”

Ford promised there’d be no layoffs

During last year’s election campaign, Premier Doug Ford repeatedly promised that his spending cuts would not result in any workers losing their jobs. In recent months, he’s hedged on that promise, saying that no “frontline workers” will be laid off. 

“Obviously, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s wrong,” McKinnon said. “We have to lay off four frontline legal case workers. There’s no way around that.”

Obviously, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because he’s wrong.John McKinnon

The cuts to legal aid are “another painful attack on workers hurt on the job,” the opposition NDP said in a statement. 

“These offices are already underfunded, and Ford’s deep cuts are threatening their future,” NDP MPP Wayne Gates said. 

“No injured worker in the province of Ontario should live in poverty because of a workplace injury or illness.”

Arulnanthysivam, the dad who injured his hand on the job, said that legal services are key to upholding the Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He learned about the Charter while studying for his citizenship test after moving here from Sri Lanka in 1990. 

“All of us have human rights,” he said. “We are all human. Accidents can happen any time.”

This story has been updated with comment from the ministry of the attorney general.

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