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
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.