Sears retirees in B.C. suffer higher pension cuts than those in Ontario

Ontario is the only province to cover deficits in defined benefit pension plans. Now, Sears pensioners in B.C. are calling on the province to do the same.

Ontario retirees have up to $1,500 of their pensions insured. B.C. pensioners want similar aid.

Pensioners in provinces other than Ontario will bear the full impact of Sears' underfunded pension plan. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

For Sears Canada pensioners, it's a tale of two retirements.

In Ontario, retirees with monthly pensions lower than $1,500 won't feel the blows of the defunct retailer's underfunded pension plan — to the tune of $270 million — or the 20-month claw back to come.

In B.C., and the rest of the provinces, retirees will bear the full impact.

Ontario's Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund — an emergency pension insurance fund — ensures retirees with defined benefit pension plans still get paid when an employer goes bankrupt.

In its 2018 budget, the Ontario government increased the insured monthly amount from $1,000 to $1,500 and made it retroactive to May 2017, to include Sears pensioners.

As a result, only the amount greater than $1,500 will get docked in the claw-back.

An estimated 16,000 Sears Canada retirees are poised to lose about 19 per cent of their pensions, pending a review from the plan's administrator.

Now, B.C. pensioners are calling on the provincial government to step in.

"How can we have a double standard in this country?" said Mark Schiller, 63, from Delta, B.C., who worked 46 years for Sears. "How can people in Ontario have [the fund] and not me?"

B.C. won't adopt Ontario model

The pension administrator for Sears says it has been paying the full pensions since October and will need to claw back an extra 10 per cent of the monthly payouts over 20 months starting in August.

It means a $2,000 pension will fall to $1,850 in Ontario. In B.C., it will plunge to $1,400.

Schiller, who estimates he'll lose $300 from his monthly pension, has pressed the B.C. government on whether it will adopt a similar measure to Ontario.

CBC News asked the B.C. Ministry of Finance about possible aid to Sears retirees in the province, but it declined to comment.

Roughly 16,000 employees lost their jobs when Sears Canada closed its doors in January. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

In early June, however, Schiller received a letter from Chris Dawkins, executive director of financial and corporate sector policy in the B.C. finance ministry.

Dawkins wrote that the province would not adopt similar legislation because Ontario's model has "significant problems."

An expert panel struck in 2008 by Alberta and B.C. to review pension legislation found that Ontario employers were concerned about the high premiums that they must pay annually to keep the Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund afloat.

The panel's report prompted a rewrite in 2015 of B.C.'s pensions act, but it didn't include a safety net for underfunded pensioners.

'I see it as unfair'

Ontario's fund sets a dangerous precedent, warned Charles Lammam, director of fiscal studies at the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute.

Lammam said the fund reduces the incentive for employers to properly manage their pensions.

That concern was echoed in the B.C-Alberta panel, which noted that employers with low risk of bankruptcy are unfairly penalized, since premiums aren't based on financial strength.

But the group representing Sears retirees said it would support a pension insurance fund like Ontario's in other provinces. 

It hasn't pushed for action, however, because the decision lies with each government.

"I see it as unfair to those people in the rest of the provinces because their governments haven't taken the steps to protect them," said Ken Eady, vice-president of the Store & Catalogue Retiree Group, who's based in Ontario.

Sears Canada is under investigation for $3 billion paid out in dividends to company shareholders, including CEO Eddie Lampert. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Pension still untouched

Schiller said a pension insurance fund is only a first step.

He said federal legislation should also include measures to prevent pensions from collapsing.

That would include getting employers to report their pension funding annually rather than every three years.

The sales manager is still out of a job after handing in his keys in January at the Brentwood Mall store in Burnaby — but he's yet to draw from his pension.

He's giving himself till September before he lets it kick in.

Read more from CBC British Columbia

About the Author

Alex Migdal

Journalist

Alex Migdal is a web journalist for CBC News in Vancouver. He's previously written for The Globe and Mail, Guelph Mercury and Edmonton Journal, and most recently reported on the refugee crisis in Turkey. You can reach him at alex.migdal@cbc.ca.