Ontario to help Stelco retirees with drug bills
Hamilton, Nanticoke get $2.6-million boost
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.”