The act of legislating is both an art and a science. It’s an exercise in balancing interests, much like a tightrope walker, delicately deciphering between the too general and the overly specific. Stray too far one way, and the law risks losing its weight. Lean too far the other, and it becomes unbending, cold, merciless. It’s the pursuit of Aristotle’s elusive Golden Mean, the seeking of palatable tradeoffs.
Likewise, the way we interpret laws and policies hinges on the concept of the ‘reasonable person’. That is, how would an ordinary, sensible person view and interpret the intention of any given law? This principle is vital in the realm of Workers’ Compensation Boards, guiding case workers as they navigate through each unique circumstance. It allows for context and extenuating factors, making sure that no one is unfairly shoehorned into a situation that doesn’t fit their reality.
But lately, it seems as though WCB has begun to drift away from this principle. It’s becoming a growing concern, especially when it comes to how the WCB handles cases involving older, disabled workers, many of whom also grapple with language barriers and technological illiteracy.
Let’s consider this scenario: a 65-year-old worker, struggling with physical limitations and an incomplete command of English, is told she needs to ‘upgrade’ her skills through computer courses or English classes to keep her benefits. Sounds like a good thing, right? Not so fast. The real job market out there isn’t so forgiving.
Employers, understandably, are always looking for folks with the right skills, fluent language skills, and the physical ability to do the job. Telling a disabled, 65-year-old worker to compete for the same jobs as young, fit, and fluent workers after a quick computer or language course isn’t fair. It overlooks the actual hardships these older workers face, and it puts all the pressure on them to get employable, while ignoring the bigger picture.
The WCB might point out that many employers offer ‘accommodations’ like special desks, voice-to-text software, and other tools. These are good things, sure, but just because they exist doesn’t mean they’re accessible to everyone. Even when these aids are available, there’s no guarantee of getting a job.
Thinking that giving someone a tool will automatically solve all the challenges to getting a job is a mistake. It doesn’t account for the other problems these older workers face: strict medical restrictions, the issue of ageism, and language and cultural barriers, to name a few.
Also, asking someone who’s older and dealing with disability to pick up new, complex skills is unrealistic and stressful. It’s a lack of understanding, a neglect of the complexity of the human experience.
One thing we’ve got to remember is that ’employability’ isn’t a fixed idea—it changes with the times and the situation. For workers who are older, disabled, and have limited English skills, the scales are already tipped against them. We’ve got to understand their unique challenges rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.
One glaring problem is that, according to WCB policy, 65 is considered the normal retirement age. So why is the WCB pushing older workers to boost their employability when they’re already past the usual working age?
Many of these older folks are put through the ringer in the WCB’s Supported Job Search process, which is meant to find them suitable work. But often, despite the training and searching, there’s no suitable job lead to be found. According to WCB language, they should be moved to ‘total disability’ or zero-based ELP. Instead, they’re put through more rounds of training and job searching. It’s tough and inappropriate treatment for anyone, let alone elderly and disabled workers.
As we close this discussion, it’s essential that we remember the very principles on which systems like the WCB were founded. The Meredith Principles, which guide the Board’s work, were meant to ensure that injured workers are treated with fairness, respect, and dignity, no matter their age or ability. Lately, it seems as though these tenets are being forgotten, at least where our older, disabled, and non-English-speaking workers are concerned.
Perhaps it’s time for the WCB to take a step back, to reassess its practices and remind itself of the values it was established on. It’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that the WCB stands for all workers, treating them with the empathy, respect, and fairness they deserve, regardless of age, disability, or language proficiency.