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One man's human rights caught in U.S. Steel Canada bankruptcy limbo

John Roach worked more than 35 years at Stelco before the company said it couldn't accommodate his back injury anymore. His human rights complaint is held up while the company's in bankruptcy.

John Roach questions why courts have given the company temporary immunity from human rights claims

John Roach, 55, seen at the United Steelworkers Local 1005 hall in Hamilton, says he just wants to go back to work at Lake Erie Works. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

After working for Stelco since 1979, John Roach was stunned one Friday last fall:

The company —now U.S. Steel Canada — no longer wanted him in the job he'd been given more than 20 years earlier to accommodate his back injury suffered at work. They were streamlining the number of workers needed.

There were no other jobs for him at the Nanticoke, Ont. mill, he said they told him.

Where does [the judge] get the right to say 'I'm taking away your human rights?- John Roach

He was dumbfounded. Surely, he thought, this infringed on his right under the Ontario Human Rights Code to be accommodated with his disability?

That's when the second shock came.

Because the company, U.S. Steel Canada, is in bankruptcy protection under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act, human rights complaints against it cannot be pursued.

'Where does the judge get the right?'

That amnesty from human rights claims began at the start of the bankruptcy protection process in Sept. 2014 and officially ends on Nov. 30, the latest deadline for the bankruptcy protection process. But it will likely last longer, since those deadlines have been routinely extended during the process.

Justice Herman Wilton-Siegel ordered in September 2014 that "no proceeding or enforcement process in any court or tribunal" could go forward during U.S. Steel Canada's bankruptcy protection period. (John Rieti/ CBC)

Judge Herman Wilton-Siegel granted the company that protection, ordering U.S. Steel Canada could undergo its restructuring free from any "proceeding or enforcement process in any court or tribunal".

Human rights complaints go in front of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario – and are covered by that order.

Thousands of people are in limbo as the giant steel company wrestles through a two-year bankruptcy process, but Roach's situation raises unique questions about the immunity of a large corporation from a worker trying to assert his human rights.

Sitting this week in his living room in Port Dover near a wooden clock he received for 35 years of service to the company, Roach, 55, admitted he doesn't know what to do with his days.

He's not ready to retire and fears his prospects are slim for getting a new job now. 

"Where does [the judge] get the right to say 'I'm taking away your human rights?'" Roach said.

'You can't just let people go'

When Roach was sent home, the company would've known he had no immediate recourse, said Wesley Jamieson, a lawyer specializing in labour, human rights and employment at Ross and McBride in Hamilton.

"You can't just let people go and then tell them you have no rights, or at least at this point you can't pursue your rights. And just hopefully you go away," Jamieson said.

"That's the rationale that seems to be the essence or the crux of U.S. Steel Canada's move here, or motive."

U.S. Steel Canada said it recognizes that "many stakeholders – from customers and suppliers to employees and retirees – are awaiting a resolution of the CCAA process." (John Rieti/CBC)

A spokesman for U.S. Steel Canada declined to comment on Roach's case but said the company recognizes there are "many stakeholders" awaiting the resolution of the restructuring process.

Jamieson said he thinks there's an argument for the judge to make an exception in this case.

Roach began an apprenticeship at Stelco straight out of high school in 1979.

He slipped and fell in some grease on the job back in 1988.

What doctors originally thought was just a bruised back from his fall still gives him trouble today.

John Roach plays with his dog, Dixie, whom he adopted after she was abandoned following Hurricane Katrina. The clock next to him was an award for working 35 years at Stelco/U.S. Steel. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

"If I walked into the plant, you wouldn't know I had a problem – I'm not missing an arm, a leg," he said. "I went to work every day. I wasn't one to take time off."

'They want me to retire'

But then, last fall, the company sent him home with some company illness benefits and assistance from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

"They want me to retire, but they won't come right out and say 'Retire,'" he said. "They'll say 'It's undue hardship for us to employ Mr. Roach.'"

The sick benefits run out next month. "I feel like I'm being treated like a criminal," he said. "I didn't get fired."

Roach's friend, United Steelworkers Local 1005 president Gary Howe, said U.S. Steel Canada is "trying to starve him out." (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

The issue boils down to the job the company had him doing. He was a trained industrial mechanic, but after his accident, they moved him to roll welding.

The rolls are like giant rolling pins used to flatten steel. Roach ran one welding machine, watching the rolls at every moment to keep them running well.

But when the company said it was requiring one worker to run two machines, Roach fought back out of concern for his safety.

"I just wanted to go to work and do my job," Roach said. "They changed my job; I didn't."

Fairness to creditors

Gary Howe, a longtime friend of Roach's, helped him file a complaint under the Human Rights Code in April.

The company responded in June, noting the judge's protection.

In its latest response sent Aug. 2, the tribunal said the complaint would be deferred until at least Nov. 30.

John Roach, at home in Port Dover, says he doesn't have much to occupy his days while he's off work. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

David Ullmann, a lawyer with expertise in restructuring cases and a partner at Blaney McMurtry, said the argument against letting certain claims go ahead is fairness to other creditors.

But the smallness of Roach's claim and the largeness of U.S. Steel Canada could be an argument to make an exception.

"The most successful human rights claim in the world is not going to bring the company to its knees," Ullmann said.

"If his main request or requirement is to be reinstated, that doesn't seem to me to be him going after an advantageous position (over the other creditors)."

But Ullmann said the usual goal of restructuring is often used as an argument for stopping all lawsuits and proceedings:

"If the company were to cease to exist what difference does it make if you have a really clever claim against it?"

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca | @kellyrbennett

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