Debate rages over post-65 benefits

Union charges age discrimination

The debate over extending benefits to workers over the age of 65 is underway, even if demand is fairly muted.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is embroiled in two labour disputes in Ontario in which the union is accusing employers of age discrimination for proposing to cut off benefits to workers over 65.

Municipal workers at the City of Kawartha Lakes have been on strike since early February, while public health inspectors, parent resource visitors and clerical support staff at the Oxford County Board of Health in Woodstock have given the union a strike mandate.

“This is really, on the face of it, an age discrimination tactic,” says Heather Grassick, CUPE national representative. “It’s an equality issue.”

Grassick says even though none of the workers in the Oxford County dispute are near 65, the issue deserves attention.

“Everyone’s circumstances are different, so if a member finds themself in a situation where they have to work past the age of 65, they should have the same benefits they had prior,” she says.

The buzz over benefits has been growing louder in recent years, as mandatory retirement has been eliminated in every jurisdiction except Nova Scotia, which is implementing its ban in 2009. While employers can no longer force workers to quit at 65, it’s still within the law to deny them benefits.

Nicole Byres, an employment lawyer with Clark Wilson in Vancouver, says provinces are trying to appease employers that cite increased costs associated with older workers.

“For example, your risk of death goes up as you get older and the cost of insurance goes up,” she says. “We all know this. So it’s a way of saying to employers, ‘We won’t force you to provide equal benefits.’”

However, Byres predicts the day will come when older employees take this issue to court. She says there’s an assumption that workers over 65 will be a drain on benefit plans, due to increases in disease and age-related disabilities. But the most expensive group is typically workers in their 30s and 40s, with young children, she says.

“If I was a 65-year-old and I was told I could no longer get dental benefits, for example, I might be tempted to challenge the insurance company and the employer by saying, ‘Prove it. I think my co-workers with all of the orthodontic kids are more expensive,’” she says.

Ellen Whelan, a principal at consulting firm Mercer in Toronto, pointed out another complication — the grey area of retirees who return to the job part time.

“The employer may say he’s active, so we give him the active benefit program, but the accountants might say he’s drawing a pension, so he’s a retiree,” she says. “Do they flip over now and just be drawing down their retiree benefit liability? Or are they still active and accruing a retiree-benefit liability to be paid in the future?”

With the first wave of baby boomers — those born in 1946, set to turn 65 in 2011 — many organizations are searching for incentives to keep them from retiring. With predictions of a widespread labour shortage, Byres says employers may have to come up with creative benefits packages targeted at older employees, or devise special insurance programs for them, such as travel insurance.

Finding existing benefit plans that cover workers over 65 is difficult, she says.

“In our law firm, if you’re a 65-year-old lawyer, you can get disability insurance until 70 — at half the benefit though,” she says. “That’s just what’s out there on the market to buy.”

Even when benefits are available, Byres says it may not be affordable to extend all benefit plans to all employees, including those over 65. She says some British Columbia employers are considering scaling back benefits for all workers to allow coverage for everyone, or allotting a certain amount of “benefit dollars” per employee — to be used at their discretion — so everyone is treated fairly.

Grassick says her members might be open to alternatives for older workers, but not right now. Her concern is that the elimination of mandatory retirement doesn’t eliminate their options for benefits.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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