Business prof joins national research centre on work disability policy

Dr. Gord Cooke, Dr. Barbara Neis and Dr. Catherine de Boer

From left, Dr. Gord Cooke, Dr. Barbara Neis and
Dr. Catherine de Boer are some of the Memorial
researchers involved in a new national research centre
on work disability policy. (Photo credit: Chris Hammond)

Feb. 13, 2014

A Memorial business professor sees his new role in a research centre dedicated to work disabilities as a chance to help a disadvantaged group of employees and potential employees.

Dr. Gord Cooke, associate professor of labour relations at the Faculty of Business Administration, is one of six Memorial University researchers engaged in the Atlantic Canadian regional hub of the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy, which was launched during a Canada-wide virtual event on Feb. 4.

“I’ve been invited to do highly applied research on a topic of public and political importance, and that is overcoming the gaps and challenges that people with disabilities face when it comes to gaining full-time, meaningful employment,” says Dr. Cooke. “The idea is that this is one of the last bastions of discrimination. The one that seems to be tolerated or at least ignored is persons with disabilities, and the statistics show that.

“For me, I just find it intolerable that an identifiable group faces drastic, tangibly different employment issues than others. That cannot be in 2014 but we know it’s the case. So I’m keen to close that employment gap, that income gap and that decent work gap.”

The Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy aims to develop evidence-based policy options that will allow Canada’s current disability policy system to provide better income support and labour-market engagement for people when they are injured, ill or impaired.

It’s co-led by Dr. Emile Tompa and Dr. Ellen McEachen, senior scientists at the Institute for Work and Health. They both also hold academic appointments at the University of Toronto.

The centre’s regional hubs are located in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Each regional hub will also partner with local community organizations, 46 in total across the country.

At Memorial, Dr. Stephen Bornstein and Dr. Barbara Neis from the SafetyNet Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research will lead the Atlantic Canadian hub. Dr. Cooke, Dr. Doreen Dawe and Dr. Sandra Small from the School of Nursing, and Dr. Catherine de Boer from the School of Social Work are involved with the project and will look at work disability from a variety of perspectives.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to be part of this interdisciplinary team at Memorial,” says Dr. Cooke, whose research focuses on employment quality and quantity. In particular, he looks at the differences between older and younger workers and the differences between rural and urban workers and employment environments. He’s examined workplace and employment issues in Newfoundland and Labrador as well as Ontario and Ireland.

People with disabilities, whether permanent or temporary, are more likely to have temporary employment status, to be casual or on-call workers, to be limited to part-time hours, and to earn minimum wage or near minimum wage. As a result, they are chronically unemployed or under-employed, he says.

“We have to figure out the technical, political, social and managerial issues that are preventing this pool of workers from having opportunities that are open to others,” he says. “We’ve got to close those gaps.”

While the logistics of the research centre are not yet developed, Dr. Cooke expects to contribute to the centre’s outcomes by ensuring that the challenges of rural areas are identified and understood as well as contributing related labour market research.

He’ll initially start out as part of a national research group examining administrative and national databases for longitudinal and prevalence studies of people with disabilities and employment experiences with a focus on rural communities. He’ll also work with a separate group to consider the impact of labour standards and employment equity legislation on employment, and how policy and labour market changes affect work disability.

Dr. Cooke hopes that by the end of the seven-year mandate, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, there will be a greater national understanding of the issues and challenges that people with disabilities face nation-wide as well as best practices established to start overcoming these barriers.

After all, disabilities could affect any of us, he says, quoting a theme that was raised at the project launch by numerous speakers:

“People with disabilities are a minority and vulnerable category of individuals, and it’s the only one that any of us could join at any time. You or I could have an incident or an illness and join that minority group temporarily or perhaps even permanent for the rest of our working lives.”

Susan White-MacPherson
With files from the Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy