Given the relative novelty of COVID-19, it’s impossible to make definitive statements about the long-term effects of the virus on the body. What is becoming evident though is that recovery from the virus can often be an onerous road marked by chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, chronic pain, organ damage, and brain fog. More than 10 percent of those who are said to have recovered from the virus, including those who initially had a mild case of it, are now experiencing debilitating post-viral symptoms that make it hard for them to get out of bed, much less report for work. Many of these COVID long-haulers were frontline workers who initially caught the virus while doing their jobs in hospitals, nursing homes, and grocery stores, and are now staring down the barrel of long-term disability.
What is also becoming clear in Ontario at least is that despite the federal and provincial governments’ recognition that the virus represents a serious public health crisis, many COVID long-haulers are being abandoned as they battle to obtain financial support from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) after having contracted the virus in the workplace. Despite being forced to sacrifice themselves during a pandemic, the plight of many COVID long-haulers demonstrates that once a body is unable to be productive for capital, then that life is considered forfeit. The state will then attempt to withdraw all but the most pitiful forms of financial aid, relegating the person to the barest of existences.
Those already living with a disability before the COVID-19 pandemic began can attest to what it’s like to try and survive in a society that does not value bodies deemed to be unproductive. When the federal government initially rolled out the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), recipients of the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) noted the double standard created by the Canadian government regarding what it considers to be a livable income. A single person with no dependents on ODSP is forced to survive on $1,169 a month, while those who qualify for CERB receive a $2,000 monthly cheque. The discrepancy between these two amounts reveals the punitive relationship the Canadian state has with people with disabilities. It reluctantly distributes inadequate levels of financial support to those who are perceived as deserving punishment for not sufficiently contributing to capital accumulation. This is reflected in Premier Doug Ford’s statement that “the best way to help people in Ontario Works or ODSP, if they’re healthy and they’re able to work, [is to] get them a job, help get them a job.”
This kind of ableist logic is being applied to former frontline workers who are now COVID long-haulers after having contracted the virus in the workplace. These individuals’ Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims are routinely being denied or appealed, with 1,425 applications having been rejected as of November 13, including hundreds from workers who are working in front-line industries including healthcare. Although support from WSIB won’t restore a COVID long-hauler to full health, the program does provide injured workers with an 85 percent income level replacement, and if the disability should become permanent (which is assessed on a case-by-case basis) then the benefit will be made permanent as well, while being adjusted for inflation. This level of funding is typically superior to what someone would receive on ODSP, while also allowing workers to retain any assets they had before the accident. This is an advantage denied to those on ODSP who are forced to sell off everything until they possess no more than $40,000 in assets (for a single person) to become eligible for the benefit.
The major barrier for most injured workers in accessing WSIB is proving and maintaining their eligibility for the program, which WSIB does not make easy. A primary reason COVID long-haulers’ WSIB applications are being denied is because they have failed to provide sufficient medical documentation proving that they became sick at work. WSIB adjudicating committees are relying on this reasoning despite many of the applicants having worked in high-risk settings including nursing homes and healthcare facilities.
Further, a number of applications are being rejected after employers file an appeal for an application that was initially approved. What employers set out to argue—and they often win—is that workplace transmission is unlikely to have occurred because they have taken the proper precautions, including providing employees with sufficient personal protective equipment. Knowing that workplace outbreaks are now outpacing outbreaks in long-term care homes, it’s clear that employers are not doing enough to protect workers. There is a lot of incentive for employers to appeal these cases because WSIB is solely funded by employer premiums, administration fees, and investment revenue. As workers’ compensation claim costs rise, so do employer premiums; employers will therefore seek every opportunity to invalidate an employee’s claim regardless of its merit in an effort to save money.
Even when it approves claims, WSIB is refusing to commit to supporting COVID long-haulers for the long-term. In the Facebook group, COVID Long-Haulers Support Group Canada, a number of long-haulers report being told by WSIB that it has chosen not to cover residual and long-lasting symptoms of the virus. For instance, COVID long-hauler, Michelle Speller writes:
I am a Healthcare worker in Ontario and contracted Covid while at work back in March and like many on here I am still dealing with extreme fatigue, episodes of SOB and palpations, brain fog, and I still don’t have all my taste and smell back. Because of the fatigue I am still not back to my pre-Covid hours at work. I went through WSIB since it was an illness contracted at work. WSIB closed my case in July because they’re apparently only allowed to approve so many weeks after an infection. I don’t understand how that can be when my doctor still to this day has not approved me to be back to work full time… My employer told me today that because WSIB closed my claim that they (work) are going to treat me as though I have a “non-occupational illness” even though what I am experiencing is 100% because of Covid, Covid that I caught while working for them. So frustrating!
Others who initially qualified for the benefit express frustration with constantly being pressured by WSIB to re-enter the workforce despite experiencing ongoing post-viral symptoms including dizziness and brain fog.
Nor should we forget that some workers do not even have mandatory WSIB coverage in Ontario, including gym and fitness club workers and those working in barber shops and hair salons. This has resulted in employees being less willing to disclose illness or injuries for fear of reprisals or loss of income. The pandemic has only exacerbated this situation.
Ultimately, in weaponizing a set of criteria that makes long-term eligibility under WSIB impossible for many COVID long-hauler claimants, WSIB adjudicators are able to uphold the interests of employers under the guise of following procedure. The consequence is that workers who are asked to sacrifice their health for the public and their employers will be propelled into impoverishment, expediently abandoned by the state and employers once they can no longer be exploited for capital.
For those who contracted COVID-19 outside of the workplace, and for those who are denied or cut off from WSIB, there are few alternatives that could provide a long-term sustainable form of financial support. New forms of pandemic-related funding introduced by Trudeau’s Liberals are not intended to meet the unique challenges of those suffering from the long-term impacts of the virus. For example, the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) was not designed for COVID long-haulers since it is limited to a maximum of two weeks. Long-haulers are also not eligible for the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) since one of the eligibility requirements is that one “must be available and looking for work and must accept work, when it is reasonable to do so.”
Other forms of support are insufficient and temporary, such as EI sickness benefits, which last a maximum of 15 weeks and provide a 55 percent earnings level replacement for a maximum of $573 per week. A more long-term form of assistance, such as the CPP disability benefit, requires the eligible claimant to have made recent and sustained CPP contributions to receive an average of $1,001.37 per month. It may be possible to combine ODSP and CPP disability, but if a person’s monthly CPP disability amount is greater than their ODSP monthly amount, ODSP benefits can be eliminated altogether.
As such, many COVID long-haulers living in Ontario are left with the only remaining option: to rely solely on ODSP. After proving their eligibility for this benefit by demonstrating they have a “severe and prolonged” disability, which can be difficult to prove since many COVID long-haulers are being dismissed by skeptical physicians, they must sell off their assets until they possess no more than $40,000, apart from some exempt assets. Only then can they become eligible for the $1,169 that is supposed to cover their rent, food, transportation, and other basic living expenses.
What COVID long-haulers’ experiences with WSIB demonstrate is that the system is a racket, and a clever one at that, that punishes bodies with disabilities for their lack of productive contributions towards capital accumulation. The attitude towards COVID long-haulers exemplifies the treatment that the capitalist state has always reserved for bodies with disabilities. It also gives the lie to the appreciative and caring posture adopted by employers and the Canadian government towards frontline workers, and shines a light on the realities of a society that has historically stigmatized and marginalized those who cannot work for pay.
Kaitlin Peters is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at York University. She can be reached here.