BEN­E­FITS BAT­TLE Re­tired Stelco work­ers head­ing to court to de­mand re­turn of sus­pended drug, den­tal cov­er­age

For­mer Stelco work­ers ap­pear­ing in court Wed­nes­day to over­turn rul­ing

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE ARNOLD sarnold@thes­ 905-526-3496 | @arnol­datTheSpec

Re­tired Stelco work­ers are vow­ing to pack a Toronto court­room Wed­nes­day to de­mand the re­turn of their health ben­e­fits.

The cov­er­age, for drugs, den­tal care and other things, is called Other Post Em­ploy­ment Ben­e­fits, or OPEBs. It was sus­pended in Oc­to­ber af­ter the com­pany ar­gued it would go out of busi­ness if it wasn’t re­lieved of those and other costs, such as prop­erty taxes.

In a mo­tion seek­ing im­me­di­ate re­turn of the ben­e­fits, union­ized and salar­ied re­tirees ar­gue U.S. Steel Canada’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion has im­proved sharply since Oc­to­ber.

The sus­pen­sion of OPEBs, United Steel­work­ers of­fi­cial Tony DePaulo said in an af­fi­davit, ig­nited a wave of panic among re­tirees who couldn’t af­ford needed med­i­ca­tions on fixed in­comes. On the day of the an­nounce­ment, more than 1,000 “hys­ter­i­cal and cry­ing” re­tirees called the Hamil­ton union of­fice.

“The first time many re­tirees found out that their OPEBs were sus­pended was when they went to their phar­ma­cies to try get­ting pre­scrip­tions filled,” DePaulo said. “Lo­cal 1005 re­ceived many tele­phone calls from re­tirees in phar­ma­cies, who were cry­ing be­cause they had just found out they could no longer get their med­i­ca­tion.”

Los­ing the ben­e­fits, he said, caused many kinds of hard­ship.

“A num­ber of re­tirees were in the mid­dle of den­tal treat­ments that had been pre-ap­proved by U.S.S.C.’s health-care ad­min­is­tra­tor, Green Shield Canada. The fund­ing for the den­tal treat­ment was cut off when OPEBs were sus­pended, re­gard­less of the cir­cum­stances or the stage of den­tal treat­ment,” DePaulo said. “Re­tirees who could not af­ford to pay for the com­ple­tion of treat­ment … were left with in­com­plete den­tal treat­ment, which some­times af­fected their com­fort, and their abil­ity to talk or eat.”

Oth­ers, he said, were in the mid­dle of can­cer treat­ments when cov­er­age of their ex­pen­sive drugs was cut off.

“The drugs were very ex­pen­sive and the re­tirees were un­able to pay for them out of pocket,” he said. “Th­ese re­tirees were faced with the prospect of an ear­lier death or more com­pli­ca­tions from can­cer, sim­ply be­cause they could not af­ford nec­es­sary pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion.”

Pri­vate in­sur­ance, DePaulo added, cost­ing up to $500 a month and not cov­er­ing pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tions, sim­ply wasn’t an op­tion for peo­ple on fixed in­comes. The pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment has stepped in with two tran­si­tion funds to­talling $5.6 mil­lion to help with the most ur­gent cases.

Many re­tirees have ex­pressed out­rage at the idea that a judge can take away some­thing they con­sider a de­ferred wage, in­tended to en­sure they had ad­e­quate care, when decades of work­ing in a steel mill took an in­evitable toll on their bod­ies.

Gary Howe, pres­i­dent of USW Lo­cal 1005, is one such worker. He’s not re­tired yet, but said in an af­fi­davit that at age 40 he was di­ag­nosed with a type of can­cer com­mon among steel­work­ers ex­posed to chem­i­cals in their mills. More re­cently he suf­fered a heart at­tack, again tied to his job.

“When I started work as an in­dus­trial me­chanic at (Stelco) al­most 40 years ago, it was clearly un­der­stood … that the en­vi­ron­ment was haz­ardous. How­ever, the risk of con­tract­ing an ill­ness or be­ing in­jured at work was con­sid­ered to be part of the job,” he said. “Em­ploy­ees de­ferred wages and com­pen­sa­tion for pen­sions and other post em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits so that when they were sick or in­jured, they would re­ceive nec­es­sary med­i­cal care and in­come, and if they died pre­ma­turely, their spouses and chil­dren would be looked af­ter.”

For­mer Stelco vice-pres­i­dent Bill Mis­sen, one of the group rep­re­sent­ing ac­tive and re­tired salar­ied work­ers, said in an af­fi­davit OPEBs cost the com­pany about $3.5 mil­lion a month and “U.S.S.C. can­not show cause that it needs to save an ad­di­tional $3.5 mil­lion a month while its for­mer em­ploy­ees suf­fer un­nec­es­sar­ily.”

Also fir­ing up re­tiree anger is a com­pany re­quest to cre­ate spe­cial funds to pay re­ten­tion bonuses to 35 key em­ploy­ees and to pay all salar­ied work­ers a base raise.

“In light of the ap­pli­cant’s sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved fi­nan­cial po­si­tion, it is clearly in a po­si­tion to pay for OPEBs,” the union said in its mo­tion. “Given the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of the sus­pen­sion of OPEBs on the most vul­ner­a­ble group of stake­hold­ers af­fected by this re­struc­tur­ing, restor­ing OPEBs must be a pri­or­ity over giv­ing dis­cre­tionary in­cen­tive bonuses and salary in­creases to man­agers.”

Also on the docket for Wed­nes­day is a com­pany mo­tion ask­ing for its cred­i­tor pro­tec­tion, which ex­pires Thurs­day, to be ex­tended to Nov. 30. That’s op­posed by its Amer­i­can par­ent, U.S. Steel of Pitts­burgh, which wants an ex­ten­sion only to Aug. 12, ar­gu­ing the ef­fort to re­struc­ture or sell Stelco has gone on long enough. Even if a po­ten­tial buyer of the Stelco as­sets is iden­ti­fied by then, U.S.S.C. wants even more time for that bid­der to ne­go­ti­ate with stake­hold­ers such as the union and the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment. Rather than that open ended process, the par­ent com­pany wants firm dead­lines and a chance to talk di­rectly to po­ten­tial buy­ers. The Amer­i­can com­pany has pre­vi­ously op­posed pro­tec­tion ex­ten­sions for the Cana­dian arm.

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