About 2,200 former hospital workers whose contracts were gutted by the provincial government’s Bill 29 in 2002 have lost another appeal, possibly the last available.
A decision this week by the Employment Insurance Board of Referees reinforces the likelihood that workers who received unemployment benefits while seeking other jobs will have to repay some of that money. It’s thousands of dollars in many cases for people who had earned about $18 an hour before the province privatized their jobs.
“We’re trying to figure out where we can take it,” said Hospital Employees’ Union spokesman Mike Old. “I think we’re pretty close to the end of the line, but, of course, we want to be certain that there’s nothing else we can do here.”
A disheartened Michael Burling of Victoria expects to repay $6,800 of benefits.
“I’m just a little bit stunned,” said Burling, 61. “Humanity doesn’t come into their decision. They’re just being so hard-nosed.”
In 2007, years after the workers lost their jobs, the Supreme Court of Canada found that parts of Bill 29 were unconstitutional. The provincial government paid $68 million to the workers because of the ruling.
Burling received $8,200.
The Employment Insurance Commission deemed payments from the province to be part of the original severance — even though they came years later. The commission decided that workers who got that money had been paid too much in jobless benefits and would have to pay them back.
The union’s stance is that the province’s payments were compensation for a serious violation of workers’ constitutional rights.
The issue affects only people who received jobless benefits and the payments, not the 7,000 workers who received payments but accepted contracted out jobs at lower wages.
Instead of a mass repayment waiver, the board of referees this week recommended that the Employment Insurance Commission waive overpayments case by case, where people are able to establish that repayment would cause “undue hardship.”
Burling has already been turned down and is worried about the effect on his finances. He feels fortunate to now work at a B.C. Liquor Store.
“There’s a lot of folks involved that are really more screwed than I am.”
The board of referees also declined to require the commission to investigate the way Bill 29 payments were allocated, but “will review individual cases of members who believe that their allocation was incorrect,” an HEU statement said.
“It just seems like the whole thing has been mishandled right from the get-go,” said Burling, adding a no-clawback clause should have been in the $68-million agreement in the first place.
That’s “beautiful hindsight,” he said.
Burling received 30 weeks of EI after 30 years as a hospital worker, the last 12 as a housekeeper at Royal Jubilee Hospital.
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