Meet the man injured Ontario workers ‘love to hate’

David Marshall will steer the perpetually challenged Workplace Safety and Insurance Board for another two years.

Critics say David Marshall's job "is to disqualify injured workers from receiving their rightful benefits." A spokesman for the labour minister, however, says he is "improving outcomes for injured workers."

David Marshall is a man who is both praised and reviled.

As the reappointed head of the perpetually challenged Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, the 69-year-old Marshall acknowledges he is not about to win a personality contest.

“Everybody loves to hate the WSIB . . . but we are doing a lot for workers,” the president and CEO, who is paid $400,000 a year, told the Star after his appointment was recently extended by two years.

The WSIB is a vast provincial government bureaucracy that takes in premiums from employers and distributes disability payments to injured workers.

Since taking over in January 2010, Marshall has met the challenge of reducing the unfunded liability — money owed to injured workers that it doesn’t have — by several billion dollars. That has made the bookish former senior federal bureaucrat, auditor, banker and diplomat the darling of the debt-ridden Liberal government.

Injured workers and labour leaders are far less complimentary, accusing Marshall of cutting costs on the back of workers struggling to get benefits.

“The combination of fewer injuries, better return to work, better management of our investment fund and higher premiums than we need for day-to-day . . . we are well ahead of our schedule that the government has set in order to become fully funded (by 2027),” Marshall, former Canadian ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, told the Star, insisting his organization is the best of its kind in North America.

Among other things, the board is concentrating on getting injured workers back to health with “tailor-made” programs with flexible recuperation deadlines.

“Our research shows that if you don’t get a worker back within 90 days of their injury, the chances that they ever go back to work drop by 50 per cent,” said Marshall, adding the WSIB hired 300 additional staff to help those injured “negotiate” their way back.

The unfunded liability has been shrunk from a high of $14.2 billion to just over $9 billion in five years, the number of workers not back to work after a year has dropped by more than half and lost time claims have dropped by 17 per cent — from 50,667 in 2009 to 41,987 in 2013. All the while employers are paying the highest premiums in Canada.

On average there are 200,000 claims made each year to the WSIB. The vast majority — 60 per cent — are dealt with without any work time being lost.

“Over the last five years, David Marshall has led the WSIB through a significant transition toward improving outcomes for injured workers and returning the board to financial stability,” a spokesperson for Labour Minister Kevin Flynn said in an email statement.

“He has refocused the board’s objectives in helping injured workers return to work, diversified the WSIB’s investment portfolio, and transformed its medical strategy, work transition and return-to-work programs,” he said.

Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan calls Marshall “the equivalent of the modern day bounty hunter.”

“His job is to disqualify injured workers from receiving their rightful benefits . . . The $400,000 is his bounty for his work over the last year,” Ryan said.

Catherine Fenech, of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups, said since Marshall arrived, “we’ve seen a steady decline in the number of claims being accepted . . . and an increase in workers being told the board thinks they can go back to work no matter how badly injured they are.”

Marshall counters that about 45 to 46 per cent of claims now are getting approved automatically using “computer logic,” which then allows us more time to focus on the others who need additional help.

John McKinnon, executive director of Injured Workers Consultants community legal clinic, said that under Marshall the WSIB no longer publishes statistics on claims denied, forcing him to make requests through the Access to Information act.

“That may explain how they are reducing their expenses,” he said.

In 2009 the WSIB paid out $3.2 billion in benefits. By 2013 it had dropped by 22 per cent to $2.5 billion.

McKinnon said the WSIB insists the workplaces are safer, which the corporation claims contributes to the reduction in lost time claims.

“But the number of traumatic fatalities has actually gone up by 43 per cent between 2009 and 2013,” he said, noting that there were 68 on-the-job deaths in 2009 compared to 97 in 2013.

McKinnon claims there has also been a reduction in the board’s recognition of permanent impairment, adding those numbers have gone down by 37 per cent, since 2012.

At the end of Marshall’s two-year-old term, which will round out a seven-year stint, he will be rewarded with an additional nine months pay for ostensibly helping with the transition to the new head.

Sitting in his perch, high atop Toronto in the WSIB’s Front St. boardroom, Marshall, former assistant auditor general for Canada, says he was brought in to snatch the WSIB back from the brink of financial ruin yet make sure injured workers are looked after, which he says is being done despite what the critics say.

“If a worker is injured, they get 85 per cent of their wages and if they can’t go back to work until age 65 they get a pension plan that we fund completely. They get medical care that is in excess of what OHIP provides . . . and they are entitled to retraining for a new job if they can’t (return to) their old job. The spouses are supported, their children are supported if there is fatality, so this is a very comprehensive system,” he said.

NDP MPP Taras Natyshak (Essex) said despite what Marshall says, his office is deluged with WSIB complaints.

“I say that strictly from the sheer volume that we see coming to our office in terms of injured workers, who are in crisis mode . . . people are falling through the cracks. We get calls all the time — non-stop — and it is not getting any better,” he said.