On April 21, 2020, Tribunal Chair, Rosemarie McCutcheon hosted a stakeholder meeting to provide an update on Tribunal operations during COVID-19. 213 stakeholders participated by teleconference or videoconference and questions to the Chair were forwarded in advance by email.
The health and well-being of our staff, OICs, and stakeholders is the top priority at WSIAT and we are committed to supporting the province-wide efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, WSIAT is committed to providing services to our Stakeholders by alternative means and being creative in how we deliver those services. We have made great efforts to adjust and adapt to the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the closure of the Tribunal’s physical offices.
This crisis has revealed areas where we need to make more progress at the Tribunal, particularly on e-filing and communicating electronically with parties. Work was already underway on these fronts prior to COVID-19 and this work is being pursued with increased urgency now. Although it may appear that our progress is slow, we must proceed cautiously to ensure that processes for sending and receiving information electronically take into account the sensitive nature of the medical information that we handle and provide for confidentiality.
On March 15, 2020, the Tribunal made the decision to postpone hearings effective March 16, 2020. Based on current information from the Ontario government, this postponement will continue until further notice.
We have been offering written hearings and teleconference hearings as alternatives to adjourning in-person hearings. The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) group has also been offering ADR services as appropriate. Successful teleconference hearings have been taking place and we are gathering feedback to adapt and improve how we conduct these hearings.
Stakeholders suggested that we consider scheduling pre-hearing conference calls in circumstances such as resolving a difference between the parties regarding an alternative hearing method, assisting parties to reach an agreement on process, facts, or appeal issues, or resolution of any case-specific procedural issues. The Tribunal is open to entertaining this suggestion and the ADR group is available should parties request their assistance.
The Tribunal has the capability to conduct videoconference hearings and we are exploring ways to offer this as an option. The difficult issue is ensuring all parties involved in an appeal have the technology and capability to participate equally. We will continue to update Stakeholders on our progress with respect to making this option widely available.
Under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, procedural timelines have been suspended at the Tribunal’s discretion. We do rely on the professionalism of the representatives appearing at the Tribunal to ensure that documents are submitted in a timely way, in the spirit of the law and meeting professional obligations.
The Tribunal continues to release decisions by alternative methods as there is no access to mail services at this time. We are currently releasing decisions by fax and email, access on the WSIAT website or, in exceptional circumstances, by courier. Any delays in decision release so far have primarily been due to trying to contact parties to advise them that a decision is ready to be released in their appeal.
UPDATE ON TRIBUNAL DEPARTMENTS
Information and Technology Services (ITS) Department
ITS has successfully added new staff to our remote access workforce bringing the total to 228 people. This required the purchase of new hardware, software licenses, and new virtual servers as well as configuring them to support the expanded use of the remote access gateway.
ITS was already in the process of actively testing e-filing of documents to the Tribunal and continues this work. There is quite extensive security testing associated with this project due to the confidentiality required in handling personal health information. This is not something we’ll be offering in the shorter term. The ITS Department is also looking at using encrypted emails for communication.
Office of the Vice-Chair Registrar (OVCR)
OVCR staff members working remotely have the ability to make calls and send faxes. They are currently assisting with converting postponed oral hearings to other formats. Staff members continue to advance written cases to Scheduling, including time extensions, reconsideration applications, WSIAT objections, and other written appeals, where they’ve been able to communicate with the parties by fax. Staff members also continue to process cases where outstanding items do not include obtaining medical information and communication can be done by fax. The team is actively working on solutions to the limitation on communication and updates will be provided as they become available.
The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) group has continued to have discussions with representatives and is assisting with reviewing postponed in-person appeals to determine if an alternative method is appropriate.
Our Scheduling Department has been contacting all parties whose hearings have been affected since March 16, 2020, and has offered alternative hearing options by teleconference and written submissions.
Parties have been gradually more accepting of pursuing alternative hearing methods to avoid an adjournment and we are going to continue to encourage this. Everyone is asked to please follow up with the Scheduling Department immediately if they have an affected hearing date.
Office of Counsel to the Chair (OCC) and Tribunal Counsel Office (TCO)
The legal teams in OCC and TCO have undertaken many projects to support the adjustments required to continue our operations, including drafting adjudication updates and reviewing different methods for decision release in a manner that is consistent with our obligations to protect privacy and confidentiality.
Human Resources (HR) and Administration Department
The HR and Administration Department has been actively monitoring the COVID-19 situation since January 2020. They have maintained internal communications, communications with the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development and other levels of government, and taken various measures to ensure the health and safety of our staff, OICs, and Stakeholders. They are also communicating with building services regarding any necessary changes for the building.
Finance and Payroll
The Finance and Payroll team has efficiently adjusted to the changing circumstances, working remotely to keep the Tribunal running.
A number of processing questions were raised including sending and receiving appeal related information, communication with parties, alternative hearing methods, and the ongoing processing on certain types of appeals. Other areas of interest included decision release processes and timelines and post-COVID-19 timelines related to in-person hearings, and the hearing scheduled for June and July. Please see the WSIAT website for updates on current processes.