N.S. says former Devco coal miners' benefits are a federal issue
Nova Scotia labour minister says the province has no legislative authority over federal employees
The Nova Scotia government says it is willing to extend benefits to retired and injured coal miners past the age of 65, but Labour Minister Labi Kousoulis says the federal government would have to approve that first.
Retired Cape Breton Development Corp. (Devco) miners have been lobbying the province to amend workers' compensation rules to allow them to keep getting payments beyond retirement age.
They lost that benefit in 1990 and have been fighting to have it restored since then.
The matter is becoming more urgent now that many of them are at or near 65 years old.
"People fought it back then," said Bobby Gillis, a retired Devco coal miner who was injured as a result of working in Cape Breton's coal mines.
"We had the federation of labour. We fought all that stuff, so what's happening now is all these people are turning that certain age, and now that is affecting them. They're now losing everything."
Gillis represents more than 100 retired miners and their widows who he says are owed benefits beyond age 65.
Many of those who were injured are receiving workers' compensation benefits and have been unable to build up a retirement pension, he said.
Gillis and about two dozen miners and widows were at a Cape Breton Regional Municipality meeting earlier this week, where councillors unanimously backed the miners' effort to get benefits extended.
"We had people here, you know, guys with one leg, you never noticed it," said Gillis.
"We had other people. We had widows here. You know, they're going to lose their pension at 65. Their husband was killed because of the mine, not killed in the mine, and it's just unfortunate that this is still happening."
Private member's bill
Gillis said according to a federal bureaucrat, the province just needs to amend its law.
Tammy Martin, the NDP MLA for Cape Breton Centre, introduced a private member's bill in the Nova Scotia legislature earlier this year that would amend the Workers' Compensation Act and extend benefits to former Devco miners beyond age 65.
But the amendment stipulates that would only happen if the federal government reimburses the province.
Kousoulis said he has met with the miners and told them the province has no jurisdiction over federal employees or their benefits.
"All they provided me was a letter of a hypothetical situation from a bureaucrat, and I said, 'What we need is ... a Treasury Board approval from the federal government to come to us,'" said Kousoulis.
He said the province would be happy to administer federal payments under its workers' compensation legislation.
It could mean up to $8 million a year would stay in Cape Breton, and part of that would cover the province's cost to administer the payments.
But Kousoulis said the province can't make the first move, and it can't open up the possibility of having to extend benefits for all recipients of workers' compensation benefits.
"I'm all for it, 100 per cent," he said. "I just can't make that decision for the federal government."
Kousoulis wrote to federal Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough and Employment Minister Patricia Hajdu in February, asking whether the federal government would guarantee covering the payments.
Kousoulis said he has not received a response.
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