Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

A bureaucratic system forgot I was the human being on the other side. I want change

Injured while working for an unregistered company, Stephanie Dohey found herself without the help she needed — in part, she says, because workers' compensation officials made only a small effort to contact her.

I only learned years later how little effort had been made to contact me

Stephanie Dohey has had persistent pain since she was injured years ago. She says her case could have been handled much better by Newfoundland and Labrador's workers' compensation system. (Mike Moore/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Stephanie Dohey, an English instructor living in Torbay. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I'm 35 years old and, for almost eight years, I have had disability and persistent pain. It all started with a simple case of tendinitis in my arms.

One injury is what caused it.

And one phone call from workers' compensation is what could have prevented it.

That one thing didn't happen, and the consequences have been dramatic. Since I got hurt, my life has been affected in every way.

I'm an English instructor, and I truly love my job. But I can't hold a book open. I can't use a pen and paper to write more than my signature or couple of items on a grocery list. Even on a good day, I wouldn't be able to carry a pen or paper in my hands for more than a minute.

I use speech-to-text software for everything. I teach classes online because I can't depend on my body to get me out of the house every day, let alone out of the driveway in winter. And there is constant pain.

I need lightweight clothes, towels, dishware, cutlery and blankets. I need a mattress that will at least lessen the pain a little bit when I try to sleep. Some days, I need to buy pre-prepared meals or precut food. That's just a small fraction of what I need. For an injured worker, it's all expensive.

Dohey used to work for a company that supplied floral arrangements to Costco in St. John's. (Ryan Cooke/CBC)

If I'd been able to take the time off work and get treatment, I could have recovered. Instead, my injury turned into a permanent disability, going from tendinitis in one arm to tendinosis, or tendinopathy, in both arms. That means it went from inflammation on one side to permanent and painful damage on both sides. I've gone through every treatment and consult available to me, and I'm told that this will never get better. 

So much function has been taken away from me, and I have not had a pain-free day since January 2013.

Case declined, no explanation given

Back then, at 27, I developed tendinitis due to repetitive strain at my full-time job as a flower merchandiser with Bloomstar Bouquets, a flower vendor that has workers in Costco stores. Tendinitis is a common problem, and I went to my doctor. She sent in a medical report form to workers' compensation, now known as WorkplaceNL.

By my next appointment, I hadn't heard back from workers' comp, and the injury had worsened. My doctor recommended taking between four and six weeks off, but I could afford only two weeks without compensation. On my third appointment, my doctor had a letter from workers' comp saying my case was declined, with no explanation given.

WorkplaceNL operates Newfoundland and Labrador's workers' compensation system. (John Gushue/CBC)

I went back to work and asked enough questions to find out, on my own, that my employer was not registered with the workers' compensation commission in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Just a couple of weeks before I reported my injury, I had been given a small raise. But a week after I returned from medical leave, my hours were cut in half. Then I was fired for missed time.

It was only at this point that I felt safe asking questions about starting my claim. After all, I wasn't risking my job anymore, and I was still in pain.

Recently, while preparing for a presentation that I gave to the workers' compensation statutory review committee, I started asking more questions about why my case was originally declined.

I was told my address was illegible on the second doctor's report, so the caseworker couldn't contact me and send me the form I needed to start my case.

I pointed out that my address was on the first report and that my phone number was clearly written on both, but I was told that the caseworker doesn't get the initial doctor's report and there is no regulation saying that a caseworker has to make a call, rather than sending the form in the mail. I asked how many other people were dropped through the cracks like that, and they said there's no way to know.

And that's all according to the rules, so it's fine.

But it's not fine. Not with me.

What a single phone call might have done

One phone call. One look at that first medical report. One sentence more in the letter to my doctor explaining why my case was declined. That was all I needed.

So much has been taken away from me. Even my legal rights. Once I pushed my case and my employer started paying fees to workers' compensation, I lost the right to sue over my injury, even though Bloomstar was unregistered when I was hurt. Nobody in the system explained that to me. If I had not gone through the workers' compensation system, I could have sued my employer for the circumstances surrounding my injury.

Dohey recently presented her case to the statutory review committee overseeing workers' compensation. She hopes the House of Assembly enacts changes to ensure injured workers receive different treatment in the future. (Mike Moore/CBC)

Instead, I unknowingly sold those rights. And I didn't agree to that.

Everyone else was allowed to ignore responsibilities. Bloomstar's manager claimed ignorance about needing to be registered in every province and, as noted by the commissioner in my external review, never submitted a jobsite analysis, which would have helped to protect future workers. Costco hired an unregistered company and refused to tell me if my injury had been reported to Occupational Health and Safety, as required. Workers' Comp didn't make a reasonable attempt to contact me and fulfil their duties. And then, when I finally started my case, they labelled me "non-co-operative" and refused to provide any financial compensation.

According to the system, I was non-co-operative because, months after my injury and being fired, and now working a new job, I wouldn't go back to work with Bloomstar to participate in an Early and Safe Return to Work program. They didn't even have a program, but I was still penalized for not taking part in it.

It didn't matter that I would have had to quit my new job, was physically incapable of going back to my old one, and had extreme conflict with Bloomstar at this point. My case manager told me I had one week to comply, because it was a mandatory part of the regulations.

And that was it. Everything was left up to me.

It took almost two years to fight through enough appeals to have the non-co-operative finding removed by an external reviewer and to get any compensation for lost pay. And if I hadn't gone through that process, I wouldn't be entitled to the ergonomic equipment that I now need to work from home due to my disability.

Too much of the system is about how much fight the injured worker is willing to put up. How many phone calls, how many letters, how many appeals does the injured worker have energy or time, let alone function, for? We are put through every loop in the system, and parts of our cases are used against us while the whole picture is ignored.

A report of a past workers' compensation case in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court (Osmond v. Newfoundland, 2001) makes reference to the system putting an injured worker's case through a game of "bureaucratic ping-pong." That is so accurate.

A statistic that should take your breath away

People aren't just suffering physically; they are suffering mentally. Workplace NL needs to respect not just lack of function but pain itself and the stress of needing to fight every step of the way through the system.

WorkplaceNL's headquarters are on Forest Road in St. John's. (John Gushue/CBC)

I recently came across a study from the Clinical Journal of Pain that found, within their collected data, that men with chronic pain were twice as likely to commit suicide compared with their general population counterpart. Men with chronic pain and a workers' compensation case were three times as likely.

Whether you've been in the system or not, that statistic should take your breath away. An injured, suffering human being is more likely to harm themselves if they are part of the system designed to support them.

That study is almost 30 years old. These problems are not new. These problems need to be addressed. Whatever the actual statistic would be in our province, changes to the system could make real changes in people's lives. It could actually save lives.

As injured workers, our voices are often marginalized or silenced by the system that is supposed to protect us. I am here to say that is not OK. I am here to be heard. I am here to ask for support from my fellow injured workers, from the public, and from members in the House of Assembly to make changes happen.

Injured workers deserve a better system.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Stephanie Dohey is an English instructor with Memorial University and currently resides in Torbay.

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