More than 2,000 hospital workers face paying back money they received from the province after the Liberals gutted health contracts 10 years ago.
Former Royal Jubilee Hospital cleaner Michael Burling, 60, is preparing to use his life savings to return $6,800 of the $8,200 he received from the province.
"A lot of people are hurting," said Burling, who worked at RJH for 30 years. He received employment insurance benefits for 30 weeks after losing his job and is now employed at a B.C. Liquor Store.
"It won't bankrupt me, but will pretty well clean out any savings that I have," he said. "And I'm not in the worst shape."
At issue is whether money Burling and other unionized workers received as part of a $85-million settlement from the province is an award for damages, as the union asserts. The federal Employment Insurance Commission views it as earned income, and says EI benefits must be repaid.
The settlements came in 2009 and 2010, after the Supreme Court of Canada's 2007 decision that struck down parts of B.C.'s Bill 29 and ruled that workers' constitutional right to freedom of association were violated. The bill, passed in 2002, gave the province the ability to privatize jobs, and about 9,000 Health Employees' Union jobs were contracted out as a result.
"It's been an absolutely horrendous process for these people who were so deeply affected, for them to now be facing clawbacks," said HEU business manager Jacquie de Aguayo.
In March 2010, the Board of Referees - which hears EI appeals - upheld repayment of the EI benefits, but suggested the commission not collect on the grounds of "undue hardship," going so far as to say that doing so would "sully the reputation of the commission."
The referees found that appellant Andrea Rachel, a housekeeper at Lions Gate Hospital in Vancouver, suffered "grievous harm personally and financially" as a direct result of Bill 29. She lost her job in 2003 and now owes $8,191 to the EI commission.
The three referees recommended that the commission waive total overpayment, saying "proof of hardship need not be elaborate for a claimant of ordinary means when the overpayment is large and would cause undue hardship. ...
There is hardship any time that claimants, through no fault of their own, are paid money to which they were not entitled and must repay."
The union has urged the commission to exercise its discretion, but has been unsuccessful in persuading it not to collect. It has, however, convinced the Canada Revenue Agency not to proceed with collections until certain legal issues are resolved.
The union has launched unsuccessful appeals to both a federal referee and an umpire and has few options left. "We've taken it as far as we can at that level," de Aguayo said.
The HEU now plans to argue to the commission that some people deemed to have been overpaid by EI for benefits, collected well after the contracting out under Bill 29.
"We are trying to resolve the issues by agreement without having to go to another hearing," she said.
Meanwhile, the HEU has advised members to apply for hardship consideration, which the union has been told the Canada Revenue Agency decides on a caseby-case basis.
There are a lot of disillusioned union members, de Aguayo acknowledges, because the "great victory" at the Supreme Court of Canada has proven to be "fairly empty" for those who received EI assistance.
"Because they have suffered some very serious hardship already, and now to have this money clawed back."
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