At long last, there is a ray of hope for workers whose employers have filed for bankruptcy. Currently pensioners, the disabled, and employees owed severance pay are treated the same way as banks and other sophisticated creditors: when a company goes under, they have to get in line to fight for a piece of what’s left with everyone else.
But a group of former Nortel employees is looking to change that. They have asked the federal government to make an emergency amendment to the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act to give preferred status to the claims of pensioners, the disabled and severed employees—essentially putting workers at the front of the line.
In principle, there is already agreement to consider the amendment amongst all the federal political parties. Driven by concern that Nortel pensioners could lose 30 to 40 per cent of their pension income, on June 16 NDP MP Wayne Marston (Hamilton East- Stoney Creek) introduced a motion in the House of Commons to look into putting pension fund claimants ahead of other creditors in the event of bankruptcy proceedings. It was passed with unanimous support.
“I am optimistic that politicians could consider making the emergency change when they come back to the legislature in the fall,” says Diane Urquhart, a financial analyst and adviser to the Nortel Pensioners and Severed Employees. “Our bankruptcy law is way out of date with respect to new developments in the marketplace.”
Still, the amendment protecting pensioners is only the first step. According to lawyer Philip Slayton, disability plan members and severed employees need more protection too. The amount of money remaining for them is “grossly inadequate,” he says.
In fact, says Urquhart, if things don’t change, many disabled Nortel employees and employees owed severance pay will likely lose 90 per cent of the money they’re owed—income that is “otherwise obligatory under employment standards set by provincial laws and common law precedents.”