New research centre to examine work disability policy in Canada

The Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy, led by two IWH scientists, aims to improve how people with disability are supported in the labour market

Published: February 28, 2014

Krystal Johnston always knew her work was potentially dangerous. But the one-time ironworker in Vancouver didn’t know one of the risks she faced was ending up poor and not knowing how to keep a roof over her head.

Johnston, only 29, has been told by doctors to give up on ironworking, a job she loves. Due to carpal tunnel syndrome, she’s lost feeling in her hands and arms. She can barely keep tools in her grip, let alone climb columns of steel many storeys above ground, as ironwork requires her to do.

The pain, tingling and loss of sensation in her hands and arms came just months after she started work at a construction site. I got hurt pretty quickly—and I believe it was from the vibrating tools, says Johnston. But she was unable to prove her condition was work-related, so Johnston didn’t qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.

The symptoms were so bad that she agreed to surgery. She toughed it out and worked in short spurts while waiting to be scheduled for the operations, one on each hand. Her condition didn’t improve after the two surgeries. By then, Johnston had exhausted her Employment Insurance Sickness Benefits (EI-SB), which ran out after 15 weeks.

To be eligible for EI-SB again, Johnston will have to work 600 EI-insurable hours. Canada Pension Plan Disability (CPP-D) benefits are not an option. They’re only available to those with severe and prolonged disability, to such extent that they’re incapable of working at all. Johnston is now getting by on benefits from her union’s disability insurance plan. But that’s a small fraction of what she used to make—and it’s running out.

She doesn’t know what she’ll live on as she finds her way into another career. I’m doing it all on my own. I don’t know where to find support, she says. I just never thought if I ever got hurt I would be kicked out on the porch in the rain.

Across Canada, there are thousands of stories like Johnston’s. These are people facing barriers in the job market due to a health condition or impairment—hence, a “work disability.” They want to work to their capacity, but the current system of support in Canada isn’t well designed to tap into that willingness.

Photo at launch of Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy
At the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy (CRWDP) launch at McMaster University on Feb. 4, 2014, from left to right: Dr. Charlotte Yates, Dean of Social Sciences, McMaster University; Brent Herbert-Copley, Vice-President, Research and Research Capacity, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; Dr. Patrick Deane, President, McMaster University; Dr. Ellen MacEachen, CRWDP co-director; Her Honour Ruth Ann Onley; the Honourable Lt. Gov. David Onley; Dr. Emile Tompa, CRWDP co-director; and Dr. Cameron Mustard, President, Institute for Work & Health.

The issue affects Canadians more broadly than what’s captured in the numbers. According to Statistics Canada, 2.3 million Canadians 15 to 64 years reported in 2012 that they were sometimes or often limited in their daily activity due to a long-lasting health impairment. That’s 10.1 per cent of the working age population. Taking into account all forms of disability—acute or chronic, temporary or episodic, physical or mental, coming early in life or late, work-related or otherwise—it’s easy to see how the issue touches most people at some point in their lives.

Research centre to work with partners across Canada

We need a work disability system that meets the needs of all working-age individuals when disabled, regardless of how they became disabled or for how long, says Dr. Ellen MacEachen, a senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

The rules and procedures of the current array of programs are complicated and, in some cases, were designed for a different era, adds labour and health economist Dr. Emile Tompa, also a senior scientist at IWH. Also, the rules and procedures aren’t fully aligned, so it can be difficult for individuals to navigate the system to get the support they need to get back to work.

It’s toward that vision of a more coherent work disability system for Canada that Tompa and MacEachen are founding a new research centre. The Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy (CRWDP) was officially launched at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., on February 4. The centre is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), its funding is administered by McMaster University, and its headquarters is physically hosted at IWH.

CRWDP will support research taking place in 15 research/academic institutions across Canada, grouped into four regional clusters: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. It is also working with almost 50 partners from across Canada, including disability and injured worker community organizations, provincial and federal-level disability support program providers, labour organizations and employers.

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Current support system fragmented, outdated

One of the centre’s objectives is to develop national consensus on specific policies that will allow the system to provide better income support and labour-market engagement for people when they’re ill or disabled, says Tompa. The current system hasn’t kept pace with deep structural changes in society, says MacEachen. An aging population means chronic and episodic disabilities are on the increase, and people with these types of illnesses often struggle to find accommodation or access support. As well, the long-term, full-time jobs that predominantly characterized the labour market are increasingly being replaced by part-time, temporary and/or casual work. As a result, parts of the working-age population are not supported very well by the current system if they fall ill or get injured, and some fall through the cracks.

Today's system was built over several decades, with different parts designed to meet different pockets of needs. What Canadians have now is a fragmented system of uncoordinated parts, adds Tompa. No less than seven different programs make up Canada’s work disability system (see sidebar). They have very different terms of eligibility, different levels of income support and different rules on supplemental income sources—and there’s no one-stop service desk to help individuals navigate these complexities.

The system’s support for work integration is also spotty. Of the different programs, only workers’ compensation programs place a clear and consistent emphasis on helping people back to work. That includes an expectation on employers to accommodate workers with injuries or illnesses. Workers’ compensation programs also have their flaws. For example, they can deem claimants employable, pushing them to go back to work before they’re ready, says MacEachen. As a result, some get reinjured or, if they don’t go back to work, are no longer eligible for benefits and are compelled to apply for welfare.

Outside the workers’ compensation system, the role of employers is pretty much absent. With some programs, beneficiaries face penalties for trying to get into the job market, even at reduced capacity. When people are trying to get back on their feet with a part-time job, having benefits withdrawn can be a big disincentive. These people face upfront costs for such necessities as transportation and work clothing. They are also taking a real risk of finding themselves out of work once again if a chronic disease flares up or their work performance is found wanting.

Employers have a role to play

One of the ways the system is outdated is this “either-or” view of disability, says Steve Mantis, an injured worker advocate and a member on the CRWDP executive. It’s seldom so cut-and-dried that you’re either able to work or you’re not. We need a system that thinks about accommodations. We need to think of how we can change work hours, work duties and/or work processes to accommodate people who want to work to their abilities.

In addition, employers need to better understand persons with disabilities’ potential to contribute, says Marie Ryan, chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities’ social policy committee and also a member on the CRWDP executive.

I’d like to see a better understanding that people with disabilities are skilled, that hiring people with disabilities is not just about quotas, equity numbers or being able to say you have diversity in the workplace, that true inclusion means having people with disabilities at the managerial or partner level of a firm, not just on the front lines, says Ryan.

Although it’s too early to say what policy prescriptions may come out of the work of the centre, Tompa says CRWDP has received strong support across the different stakeholder groups.

You can learn more about CRWDP and its official launch on its website at, through its Twitter feed at @crwdp, in its newsletter Working Policy (sign up on the website), or by contacting the centre’s manager Mai Elramly at]