Never-ending battle for migrant worker Jeleel Stewart, injured on the job in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Health & Safety farm workers Immigrants migrant workers Workers Compensation WSIB
By Somer Slobodian, The Lake Report
It’s been 15 years since farmworker Jeleel Stewart was injured on the job in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Today, friends and family say he’s just a shell of himself.
“He was such a dynamic personality,” farmworker advocate Jane Andres told The Lake Report.
In Jamaica, Stewart, is known as John but to his friends here in Canada, he is Bushman. Andres and fellow farmworker advocate, Jodie Godwin, met Stewart at a Sunday church service back in 2007.
“He’s the guy out there singing at the top of his lungs,” said Andres. She remembers him up on stage singing and dancing as if he was the only person in the room.
“He caught your attention just by his level of enthusiasm,” she added. His laugh would fill a room and he brought positivity wherever he went.
“He was a person that drew people to him,” said Godwin.
Stewart, now 49, came to work at Mori Nurseries in NOTL when he was 33. He was hired through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. At his bunkhouse, “he was kind of like the mother hen,” said Andres.
He would take care of his co-workers by cooking meals for them. He did the same for his wife and, at the time, four children back home in Jamaica. Today, he has five children. He took the job in Canada to provide for his family. But everything changed on May 12, 2008.
While he was working, his left hand was crushed by a forklift. The tendons and nerves were severed.
He had just arrived from Jamaica to begin his second year in the program.
“It was a Sunday. I called and I couldn’t get through to him. So I was very upset because normally that wasn’t him,” his wife Suzan told The Lake Report by phone from Jamaica.
On her way to work on May 12, she received a call from her husband — he had been in an accident. In a YouTube video by Andres, Stewart said he tried to slide along the gravel, but his hand got caught by the forklift and pinned him down. He had to cut the glove off his hand piece by piece, he said.
He went through a three-and-a-half-hour surgery and then spent many lonely days at his bunkhouse by himself while his co-workers were working.
Andres tried to drop off meals and groceries for him, but was told by his liaison officer and a human resource worker from Mori Nurseries at the time that she wasn’t allowed to be there.
“They were very angry that I brought him food. They said, `He doesn’t need it,’ ” said Andres.
He went back to Jamaica that August, only three months after his accident. Suzan said she urged him to return home, “so I could take care of him.”
15 years of pain
She didn’t think 15 years later he’d still be in excruciating pain with no use of his left hand while still fighting with the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB) for proper compensation.
Stewart’s caseworker from the Industrial Accident Victims Group of Ontario, David Arruda, is working to get the compensation Stewart deserves. The WSIB has determined that Stewart’s full body impairment is as high as 44 per cent, said Arruda.
“He should be determined to be competitively unemployable and he should be granted loss of benefits until 65. That’s our argument,” he said.
He is waiting to bring Stewart’s case to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal. Andres and Godwin have been supporting Stewart and his family emotionally and financially since he was hurt.
“If it wasn’t for those two ladies, I don’t know how I would manage,” said Suzan.
Andres said his health has been deteriorating over the years due to stress, diabetes, lack of proper nutrients and the pain caused by his injury. He can’t afford proper nutrients because he can’t work and WSIB hasn’t fully compensated him, she said.
“I’m not a doctor, so I can’t say to what degree the lack of earnings has played in his current condition, but the WSIB’s decision to cut his loss-of-earnings benefits definitely didn’t help,” Arruda said in an email to The Lake Report.
He’s been in the hospital about seven times this year. As of last week, he had been admitted again.
“He’s scrambling to get by and make a living, assisted by us, but we can only do so much,” said Godwin.
There’s fluid in his lungs that is pressing down on his heart and has made its way down to his foot.
National Day of Mourning
With National Day of Mourning for injured workers this Thursday, Andres wants to remind people about Stewart and his ongoing battle.
“This is what we’re facing. He’s now going to die. And this is a time people need to show up,” she said.
He still can’t grip with his injured hand and the pain has gone up his arm. Simple, daily activities like changing his shirt is now a two-person job. Suzan said she and her kids often massage his hand to ease his pain.
“We just have to help him until he tells us to stop,” she said.
She said watching him go through this pain and slowly deteriorate is painful. He tried to work and support his family, but “if he worked too long, (he’d have) pure pain,” she said.
‘Never lose hope’
In the beginning of his recovery, he stayed positive and hopeful, said Godwin.
His motto was “never lose hope.” He received payments from WSIB and went to physiotherapy three times a week.
While he received physiotherapy, he had to pay for his transportation to Kingston, Jamaica, and back to his rural home. It would cost upward of $400 a month.
“They would reimburse him, but sometimes it would take several months to get reimbursed,” said Andres.
Then in October of 2010 he got an email saying his loss-of-earnings benefits were ending. WSIB deemed that he was able to use his other hand and work as a cash bar attendant at a gas station in Niagara Falls. The Lake Report has a copy of the letter sent to Stewart.
Migrant workers get 12 weeks of full loss-of-earnings benefits through WSIB if they are unable to return to their pre-injury job, said Christine Arnott, the agency’s public affairs manager.
WSIB then determines a worker’s post-injury earnings “based on employment that is identified as suitable and available for them in the Ontario labour market.”
When The Lake Report asked specifically about Stewart’s case, Arnott said she could not provide detailed information for privacy reasons.
Stewart lives in Jamaica, is not a Canadian citizen and getting a job as a gas attendant in Ontario was not an option — but it’s the only option WSIB gave before ending his benefits.
This process, called deeming, happens often to injured workers.
“They look at it as, `OK, well, you know, you were injured in Ontario, and therefore, we can evaluate it as if you were in Ontario,’ ” said Arruda.
MPP Wayne Gates has been trying to get the provincial government to deal with the issue of deeming.
“Workers find themselves living in poverty if they are not able to find the employment that WSIB has deemed them able to complete,” Gates’ assistant Josh Upper said in an email to The Lake Report.
Private member’s bill
Gates introduced a private member’s bill in December in an effort to have the province address the practice of deeming, said Upper. Arnott said between 2017 and 2021, there were 7,724 allowed claims for migrant workers in the agricultural industry, including 2,884 for COVID-19.
“This represents approximately 1.5 per cent of all allowed WSIB claims from 2017-2021,” she said.
Andres and Godwin have been by Stewart’s side throughout his injury and have seen first-hand how hard it is to deal with WSIB. Andres said the insurance board is “designed that way for people to give up or die.”
Three of Stewart’s five children had to drop out of school as a result of their financial situation because he hasn’t been able to work. Over the years the physical and psychological pain Stewert endured started to take its toll.
“What starts to creep in is a sense of discouragement and (a) gradual erosion of hope,” said Godwin.
In 2012, Andres remembers listening to a message from Stewart that frightened her.
“He was just calling to say goodbye. He couldn’t do it any more. But he wanted us to know how much he loved us,” she said.
They thought he was going to end his life. His wife had to keep a close eye on him after that, said Andres.
WSIB re-evaluated decision
In October 2016, after a documentary came out called “Migrant Justice,” the WSIB re-evaluated its 2010 decision and came to the conclusion he was not able to do any work.
“Essentially because of the severity of his psychological injuries,” said Arruda.
Stewart was granted retroactive loss-of-earnings benefits from September 2014 to October 2016, then he got benefits until April 2019, he said. Stewart lost his benefits again in April 2019. That’s the last time he received any form of payment.
“They said that in 2019 his psychological injuries have recovered to the degree that they were going to recover and that his recovery had plateaued,” said Arruda.
Suzan says the WSIB doesn’t care about farmworkers and, if one gets hurt, another one will be sent in their place.
“We are the ones that end up with either a body to bury, or an injured farmer to take care of the rest of our life or the rest of our husband’s life,” she said.
In 2021, the WSIB decided Stewart needed physiotherapy on his right hand to try to strengthen his non-dominant hand so he could start working again. That treatment hasn’t happened yet.
Arruda said they’ve hit some roadblocks since Stewart needs a referral from a physician before he can start physiotherapy. His health also took a turn for the worse and he needed surgery for a heart stent in April 2021.
Andres and Godwin just want to see Stewart receive full compensation before it’s too late.
“Gosh, the system really is not working, and Jeleel is just a shining example of that,” said Godwin.
“I wish this story could have been told and dealt with and that he would have been able to have some dignity in his life,” she added.
But she’s not giving up on Stewart — and says neither should anyone else.