As more Canadians work well into what was once considered their golden years, some could lose thousands in pension benefits every year, simply because of their age.

Under the Income Tax Act, no one may accrue any pension benefit after the end of the year in which they turn 71.

An unforeseen consequence is that working Canadians over 71 will effectively earn less than their younger colleagues because their employers' pension contributions are paid into a fund from which they cannot legally collect.

"This is the definition of discrimination — paying two people differently for the same work simply because of the difference of their age," said Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for CARP, a national non-profit organization representing retirees and older Canadians.

For 77-year-old Fred Hillier, the difference in total benefits he receives compared to a younger worker doing the same job is $4.25 per hour.

'At my age, I've slowed up a lot since I came here, and was depending on that. I said that'll be a nice little nest egg.' - Fred Hillier, elderly worker

So far, Hillier's employer, Compass Group, has contributed $54,637.12 to his union pension fund on his behalf.

All that money will benefit others in the fund, but not Hillier.

"No, I don't think it's fair," Hillier said.

"I was kind of depending on that pension money [to] help me over the next few years," he said.

'I grin and bear it'

Hillier worked for more than 30 years for Marine Atlantic on the ferries running between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Money problems forced him back to work in 2007.

Today, Hillier is a camp attendant at Firebag Village, a massive residential work camp in the Alberta oilsands north of Fort McMurray.

"That means I'm your servant more or less," Hillier said.

He makes beds, and cleans bedrooms, bathrooms and hallways.

Suncor Firebag

Fred Hillier works 10 hour shifts at the Suncor Firebag oilsands camp cleaning rooms and making beds. (Courtesy of Suncor)

"I tell you it's hard work. I work 10 hours a day," he said. "My feet hurt all the time. I kind of persevere, like grin and bear it, and keep going day by day."

The collective agreement between Compass Group and Hillier's union, UNITE HERE Local 47, requires the employer to contribute to the union pension plan for each hour worked by individuals covered by the agreement.

Hillier discovered his pension benefits were lost while in his second year working for Compass Group.

"I said, 'I must call in and find out if I can draw that out,'" he said. "I didn't know up until then, and then in the phone conversation they told me, 'you're not going to get it.'

"I felt downhearted and pretty low about it," he added.

"At my age, you know, I've slowed up a lot since I came here, and was depending on that. I said, 'That'll be a nice little nest egg.'"

In an emailed statement to CBC's Go Public, the administrator for the pension plan said it was following federal and provincial law.

"Without legislation changes, the Trustees of the UNITE HERE Local 47 Pension Plan do not have the authority to provide any benefits under the pension plan in this situation," wrote Douglas Stafford of Morneau Shepell Ltd.

"However, with the trend of older individuals remaining in the workforce, we expect that there will be increasing pressure for the federal government to make changes," Stafford wrote.

Hillier's situation is typical in collectively bargained, multiple employer pension plans, Stafford said, adding employers' contributions are used to fund the plan as a whole and aren't allocated to a specific individual.

Some older workers get benefits directly

Hillier later learned some workers in the oilsands get to keep the pension contributions their employers make.

He said he met a fellow Cape Bretoner who was shop steward with another union, and told him his story.

Susan Eng

CARP seniors advocate Susan Eng calls Hillier's case 'the definition of discrimination.' (Courtesy of CARP)

"He said, 'Hell no! That's your money, boy. Don't let them do that to you. We pay our men every month on their cheques.'"

At least two unions in the oilsands, the Heat and Frost Insulators and the Alberta Regional Council of Carpenters & Allied Workers, have language in their collective agreements directing employers' pension contributions back to the employees, if they aren't eligible to contribute to the pension plan.

"I believe that pension is part of your wage package. I consider it something the individual should be receiving no matter what," said Kevin Lecht, business manager for the Heat and Frost Insulators.

Lecht agreed what the two unions do is the exception and not the rule.

Employers, union urged to act 

Eng said Hillier's case is becoming more common.

"The income tax rules were written for another age," Eng said.

Eng wants the Income Tax Act to be reviewed in a comprehensive way and not just tweaked.

In the meantime, more unions and companies could end discrimination against older workers and still comply with the existing law, she said.

"Just give him a wage adjustment rather than simply letting him pay into a fund from which he's never going to benefit."

Eng said the tax law's implications for older workers are well known to pension administrators.

"I think they should've figured out the problem long before he contributed $50,000 to a plan he was never going to benefit from," Eng said.

"This workplace might want to make it up to him."

That's what Hillier, who turns 78 in July, is hoping for.

"The good book says we have threescore and 10. So I'm on borrowed time," he said.

"These things would really have helped me over the hump, and I would have been able to enjoy the next few, couple of years."