TORONTO — A Toronto legal clinic that helps workers who are unjustly fired has laid off two of its staff members in the wake of funding cuts made by Premier Doug Ford’s government.
One staff lawyer and one law clerk/outreach worker both left their jobs at the Workers’ Health & Safety Legal Clinic on June 28, director Linda Vannucci told HuffPost Canada Friday.
The staff members had just been hired this spring to reach out to Spanish-speaking workers who would otherwise have trouble accessing legal services, Vannucci said.
“These are probably the most vulnerable workers alongside migrant farm workers,” she said.
These clients are low-wage workers who don’t speak English and can’t afford their own lawyer. They often work through agencies and are treated like they’re “invisible,” Vannucci said.
“They work very hard. It’s ironic to say this but they almost don’t have time to find us, so we have to look for them.”
The Workers’ Health & Safety Legal Clinic saw nearly $200,000 retroactively slashed from its $825,000-budget for this year.
“For a small clinic, it’s a disproportionately large loss,” Vannucci said.
Workers’ Health & Safety Legal Clinic previously employed nine people. On top of the two people who were laid off last week, they lost one other lawyer through attrition. He left the clinic to go back to the private sector as soon as the provincial government announced it was cutting legal aid funding, Vannucci said.
Her staff spends half its time helping workers who are unjustly fired, like those who lose their jobs for raising health and safety concerns or for speaking out about sexual harassment. The other half of their time is spent helping injured workers appeal decisions made by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).
In a letter sent in May to the province’s former attorney general, Caroline Mulroney, the clinic’s board of directors included a statement from a client who had been reached through the Spanish outreach program.
The statement said her supervisor at the cleaning service she worked for was sexually harassing her. The clinic helped her write a letter to the manager outlining the instances of harassment and her rights under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and Human Rights Code. Then, she was fired.
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The clinic helped the worker file a case at the Human Rights Tribunal, which she won. She was compensated for the harassment and all the wages she lost after she was fired, and she said in the letter she wouldn’t have taken legal action without the clinic’s help.
Vannucci said her staff helped this woman escape daily sexual harassment that was upsetting her so much, she became physically ill.
“She just thought she had to keep taking it,” Vannucci said. “If we hadn’t found her and helped her write a letter to demand change from that employer, which ultimately got her fired, she just would have kept on.”
The client has now found other work. But Workers’ Health & Safety Legal Clinic no longer has the resources to reach out to people in her situation.
Ontario’s legal clinics are funded by Legal Aid Ontario. Ford’s government aims to cut $164 million from that agency by the 2021/22 fiscal year. Legal Aid Ontario is starting its reductions with about $70-million to $75-million in cuts this year, staff has told HuffPost.
A spokesman for Legal Aid Ontario said the clinic should amalgamate with two other legal clinics that focus on workers’ issues to save money.
“There are a number of administrative efficiencies that could be taken advantage of here,” spokesman Graeme Burk told HuffPost by email. “A number of frontline positions could be funded just by bringing three clinics under one roof with a single executive salary.”
One of the other workers’ clinics, Injured Workers Community Legal Clinic, has already given layoff notices to four staff members. And workers at the third workers’ clinic are taking a 20-per-cent pay cut to avoid layoffs.
Vannucci noted that she is not just a manager, she is a lawyer who does frontline work with clients. She said that’s the case for most legal clinics across the province.
“We’re not administrators. That’s a small piece of our job.”
The government insists that the cuts won’t affect frontline service and Ford has said repeatedly that no “frontline workers” will lose their jobs as he slashes spending — statements that tweak his earlier promise that no workers would lose their jobs at all.
“It is our government’s expectation that legal aid clinics will prioritize frontline services to ensure they remain strong and protect direct services for eligible Ontarians who need legal aid,” a spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General, Brian Gray, told HuffPost by email last week.
Vannucci said it’s “wishful thinking” to assume that funding cuts won’t affect services.
“They’re telling us they don’t want it to affect services. They’re telling us they expect our service numbers to not go down. But in reality, when you go from six lawyers to four lawyers, how can you maintain the same level of service? It’s just unrealistic to expect that,” she said.
“Having said that, we will try our hardest. We don’t want our clients to suffer.”
This story is a part of UNAIDED, a HuffPost Canada series that examines the effects of recent funding cuts to Ontario’s legal aid system and the impacts on the vulnerable people who rely on it to navigate our complicated justice system.
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