On­tario to help Stelco re­tirees with drug bills

Hamil­ton, Nan­ti­coke get $2.6-mil­lion boost

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE ARNOLD

Stelco re­tirees strug­gling with the loss of health ben­e­fits are get­ting a sec­ond help­ing hand from the On­tario govern­ment.

On Tues­day, Fi­nance Min­is­ter Charles Sousa an­nounced a $2.6-mil­lion tran­si­tion fund to help 20,000 U.S. Steel Canada re­tirees in Hamil­ton and Nan­ti­coke.

It fol­lows a $3-mil­lion fund es­tab­lished in Jan­uary af­ter U.S.S.C. won court ap­proval to sus­pend pay­ment of re­tiree ben­e­fits along with pen­sion top-ups and mu­nic­i­pal prop­erty taxes.

For union lead­ers Gary Howe and Bill Fer­gu­son, presidents of the United Steel­work­ers lo­cals at the Hamil­ton and Nan­ti­coke mills, the ex­tra sup­port

is wel­come but is still lit­tle more than a Band-Aid.

“I’m happy that they’re do­ing this — it will be very help­ful to peo­ple who have noth­ing,” Fer­gu­son de­clared.

“But there are still a lot of peo­ple in need not get­ting what they were promised.”

“The money is ap­pre­ci­ated, but it’s just a Band-Aid be­cause we’re still swamped with prob­lems,” Howe added.

“This money was earned and that’s why peo­ple feel so cheated.

“It’s like some­one steals $100 from you and the govern­ment gives you back $10.”

The union lead­ers say the Other Post Em­ploy­ment Ben­e­fits, or OPEBs, are a de­ferred part of their wage, some­thing set aside for re­tire­ment to en­sure work­ers have ad­e­quate health cover­age af­ter decades of toil­ing in the mills takes its toll on their bod­ies.

While the govern­ment tran­si­tion fund will cover pre­scrip­tion drugs, along with ur­gently re­quired den­tal and other health ser­vices, it doesn’t cover orthotics or other treat­ments for backs, legs and other body parts weak­ened and ru­ined by years of heavy labour.

What angers work­ers most, how­ever, is re­cent news the com­pany will pay raises to salaried staff and re­ten­tion bonuses to 35 key em­ploy­ees.

“Ev­ery time the com­pany talks about raises and bonuses it just galls me,” Fer­gu­son said.

“The com­pany is just stuff­ing money in each oth­ers’ pock­ets in­stead of liv­ing up to this con­trac­tual and moral obli­ga­tion.”

The com­pany pro­posal is to cre­ate a pool equal to two per cent of its salaried wage bill to pay those em­ploy­ees the first raises they’ve seen in two years.

A sec­ond pool of $2.3 mil­lion will pay spe­cial bonuses to 35 em­ploy­ees iden­ti­fied as key to the oper­a­tion.

In re­sponse, the union has in­structed its lawyers to bring a mo­tion to court ask­ing that the health ben­e­fits be restarted im­me­di­ately.

In ar­gu­ing for sus­pend­ing the ben­e­fits, U.S. Steel Canada said in le­gal mo­tions that with­out re­lief from such costs it could not con­tinue to func­tion.

In a re­cent up­date to em­ploy­ees, U.S.S.C. pres­i­dent Mike McQuade said the ben­e­fits, prop­erty taxes and pen­sion top-ups cost the com­pany $268 mil­lion a year.

The fi­nance min­is­ter said in a news re­lease the govern­ment pro­gram is in­tended to help re­tirees and their fam­i­lies tran­si­tion to other sup­ports and pro­grams such as the Tril­lium Drug Pro­gram.

Court ap­proval is re­quired be­fore money can be paid from the fund.

“The govern­ment has worked closely with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the union and salaried re­tirees, U.S.S.C., the Court-ap­pointed Mon­i­tor, and Green Shield to man­age the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of the Tran­si­tion Fund,” Sousa said in a news re­lease.

“The col­lab­o­ra­tive work with th­ese part­ners has helped to en­sure that the needs of U.S.S.C. re­tirees con­tinue to be ad­dressed through­out the CCAA le­gal pro­ceed­ings.”

A let­ter will also be sent to re­tirees to no­tify them of ad­di­tional sup­port avail­able through the Tran­si­tion Fund.

“Our govern­ment re­mains com­mit­ted to work­ing with all stake­hold­ers in the re­struc­tur­ing process to achieve the best pos­si­ble out­come for em­ploy­ees, pen­sion­ers, sup­pli­ers, cus­tomers and the long-term vi­a­bil­ity of the Cana­dian op­er­a­tions,” Sousa said.

The union has made restor­ing the ben­e­fits a key con­di­tion for gain­ing its sup­port for any bid­der want­ing to take over Stelco.

Fully fund­ing the pen­sion plans and pre­serv­ing jobs at the steel mills are also part of the union’s “holy trinity.”

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