Sunday, June 14, 2015

Injured worker on hunger strike for compensation hearing

After 18 days with only water and broth to drink, Jimmy Velgakis says he just wants a chance to tell his side of the story.

 Former city worker Jimmy Velgakis holds vigil outside Queen's Park, where he's holding a hunger strike to make his case for workers compensation.
Former city worker Jimmy Velgakis holds vigil outside Queen's Park, where he's holding a hunger strike to make his case for workers compensation. 

After more than 20 years, Jimmy Velgakis is still angry.

With a sign around his neck, he’s been standing in front of Queen’s Park for the past 18 days on a hunger strike. The former city ice rink worker injured his back lifting a piece of plywood on the job in 1991 and has never received the workers’ compensation benefits he says he’s due.

When he tells his story, Velgakis’ voice grows louder and his deep tan takes on a reddish hue.

“I have the injury. I prove that and they refuse to pay me,” he says in a thick Greek accent. “When I get to a second tribunal, they kick me out of the room. They don’t allow me to talk. They play with me.”

As he reaches his crescendo, the 74-year-old mustachioed man stops and stumbles backward. After nearly three weeks with only water and broth to sustain him, he says, these flashes of weakness hit with increasing frequency.
It’s Velgakis’ third hunger strike in the past four years. The last two ended with promises that he would get a new hearing and be given an opportunity to tell his side of the story. Both times, a full hearing didn’t materialize.

“At every turn this poor man has just been shut down. He really is literally at the end of his tether right now. We tried everything to convince him not to do this, but he insisted,” said NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, who went on a 10-day hunger strike with Velgakis in 2013.

DiNovo, who plans to highlight Velgakis’ case in a statement to the House on Monday in honour of injured worker’s day, has tried to get the premier, minister of labour and Toronto city hall involved, but says she has been rebuffed at every turn.

“It’s a matter of justice. He’s been fighting for years. It’s very indicative of what injured workers have to go through with (the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board). He’s just not letting it go. Why should he?” she said.

The WSIB declined to comment and referred the Star to the Workplace Safety Insurance Appeals Tribunal. The WSIAT doesn’t normally comment about individual worker’s cases, said acting general counsel Michelle Alton.
“We are aware of Mr. Velgakis’ hunger strike. The tribunal hopes he takes care of himself and he stays healthy,” she said.

After his injury, Velgakis continued to work for three years in a role that had been adapted for his bad back. When the city laid him off in 1994, he was given a one-time payout and signed away — unwittingly, he says — his right to pursue further claims.

In 1996, Velgakis won a decision recognizing his injury and granting him benefits, but he only got a few days of payments before they were cut off.
At the next hearing, his temper got the best of him and he was asked to leave while his future was decided without him. His claim was rejected.

Velgakis rented out his basement and asked his brother in England for some help to make ends meet, but soon the pressure became too much. He says his marriage fell apart and he grew estranged from his two daughters. He now lives off a half-pension from the city and CPP.

Marion Endicott, of Injured Workers’ Consultants, represents Velgakis free of charge. While acknowledging that he’s exhausted his legal avenues for recourse, she argues that he should be given a new hearing on humanitarian grounds.
“Jimmy has been the victim of an insidious transformation of our workers’ compensation system from an inquiry-based one to an adversarial one,” Endicott said. “Jimmy’s fighting not only for himself, he’s fighting for all injured workers — the only difference is that he’s not giving up.”

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