Nfld. & Labrador

A day late, $30,000 short: Union blames insurer for denying death benefit to fisherman's family

It was never the decision of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union to deny benefits to the family of a dead fisherman, says the union's president.

Aunt of deceased fisherman says union isn't going to bat for them after missed deadline for dues owing

Keith Sullivan, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union, says the union's insurance company is responsible for denying claims, as in the death of Calvin Tobin. (Calvin Tobin/Facebook, Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Keith Sullivan wants to make one thing clear — it was never his union's decision to prevent a dead fisherman's family from receiving benefits.

Denying Calvin Tobin's death benefit was a decision made by the union's insurance provider, says the president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union.

"I think it's been misrepresented as the FFAW is making a decision that someone is not eligible," Sullivan told CBC News on Thursday. "But that's the policyholder, Sun Life [Financial]."

Calvin Tobin, 25, died in the hours following a car crash Aug. 1 — a day after his insurance expired. (Submitted)

Tobin, 25, died after a car accident near his hometown of Southern Harbour on Aug. 1.

His insurance coverage was terminated the same day, when he failed to pay his union fees by the 11:59 p.m. deadline on July 31.

As a result, Tobin's family is unable to collect a $30,000 death benefit.

"We've been in contact with the family and we'll continue to do that," Sullivan said. "We'll certainly be helping in every way possible because we know how hard of a time they're going through right now."

Union needs to step up, says family

But Tobin's family says their dealings with the FFAW have been abysmal.

"It's bad enough that we had to bury our nephew," said Carol Ann Brewer, Tobin's aunt and next-of-kin. "But it's even more devastating try to fight for what is rightfully his."

The family has spoken to several different people at the union, but have yet to get a satisfactory response to the situation, Brewer said. 

The family of a fisherman killed in a highway crash mourn this death. 3:04

They want to know why Tobin was in arrears to begin with — and whether or not the union will go to bat for them.

At the time of his death, Tobin owed $180 in fees from 2016, Brewer said. But she can't figure out why the money owed wasn't taken out of his first paycheque of the current fishing season.

How are union fees paid?

Fish harvesters have money deducted from their paycheques each time they sell their catch. The deduction is made at the fish plant. 

For many, their deductions are not enough to meet the money owed for union fees. Those fish harvesters are notified at the end of the season, and Sullivan said most of them pay their fees over the winter.

Carol Ann Brewer says her nephew, Calvin Tobin, will live on in memories and photos. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

At the start of the season, the FFAW will notify processing plants which of their regular sellers owe money in union fees. That money is then deducted by the processor from the fish harvester's first paycheque.

There is a catch, however.

"In many instances, people change their buyers regularly. and it certainly does make it more difficult at times," Sullivan said.

Calvin Tobin was one of those fishermen.

'He'll always be in our hearts. He'll always be our boy.- Carol Ann Brewer

After switching buyers at the start of this season, his deductions went towards his 2017 union fees — not the amount he owed for 2016.

"He fished this year. He paid into the union," Brewer said. "Why put it in on this year's [fees] when it was supposed to go on arrears from last year?"

Since last year, 71 families have benefited from the union's insurance policy. Sullivan said the number of claims denied has been small in comparison, but he did not have an exact number.

After days of desperate phone calls, Brewer will have a meeting with FFAW officials on Friday.

But nothing — not even a cheque for $30,000 — can help the grief and anger she feels.

"He'll always be in our hearts. He will always be our boy," she said. "And this is just not right."

About the Author

Ryan Cooke works for CBC out of its bureau in St. John's.