Medical travel expenses should be paid: Arbitrator

Coal miners see specialists in remote areas while away on jobs

The union representing employees at a coal operation in British Columbia claimed the company violated the collective agreement when it refused to pay an employee's travel expenses to see a specialist — and an arbitrator has agreed.

The International Union of Operating Engineers filed a policy grievance against Teck Coal, operating as Line Creek Operations in the East Kootenay area.

According to the collective agreement, the company would pay up to $100 per trip for travel expenses incurred by an employee who is required to see a specialist for consultation, treatment or hospitalization.

Teck Coal denied any wrongdoing, arguing it was not required to pay expenses when the employee is able to see a specialist within the Elk Valley and vicinity of the Line Creek mine.

“Employees are required to ‘travel’ before they are entitled to have their expenses paid and that requirement necessitates that they must leave their local area,” counsel for the employer argued at the hearing.

As the company saw it, there was a “common understanding” between the parties that travel expenses within the Elk Valley were not compensated.

There are five mine sites owned and operated by Teck Coal in the area, and while employees are able to drive their own vehicles to work, the company also provides buses to and from designated pickup locations.

These buses operate twice daily, and are not available to transport employees at arbitrary times or to arbitrary locations.

Because the towns within the Elk Valley are relatively small, most employees have, over time, gained practitioners in the area — though some needing specialized medical attention are required to go to bigger cities such as Calgary or Lethbridge in Alberta.

In the past, the employer paid travel expenses for such trips, the union said.

The issue arose when an employee, Calvin Hughesman, travelled from his home to a doctor in Elkford, B.C., a 76-kilometre

distance. Whereas the union said Hughesman should be compensated, the employer disagreed, saying payment is not required when a worker can see a specialist within the Elk Valley area, and within the regular bus route.

According to John Kinzie, the arbitrator presiding over the case, the issue was a matter of interpretation and language.

Of particular concern is the phrase “immediate area” when concerning travel.

If an employee’s specialist lives in his own town, Kinzie said going to see him would not entitle him to travel expenses because that is unequivocally within the “immediate area.”

In the case at hand, Hughesman’s specialist was in a different city than his own, regardless of the fact that it was within the Elk Valley.

“I am of the view that (the collective agreement) does not impose a geographical limitation on the ability of employees to recover their travel expenses for seeing a specialist to the effect that their travel must take them outside the bus route of the employer’s or outside the Elk Valley,” Kinzie said.

As such, the policy grievance was upheld and Hughesman was entitled to reimbursement for his travel time.

Reference: Teck Coal (Line Creek Operations) and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) local 115. John

Kinzie — arbitrator. David McDonald for the employer, John MacTavish for the union. March 12, 2015.

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