Pension decision looming for thousands of former Nortel workers

Thousands of former Nortel workers have been invited to meetings across the country to help them figure out what to do when the company's pension plan winds down at the end of the year.

Former Nortel employees have until Dec. 31 to decide what to do with remains of their pensions

Former Nortel executives Dave Stevenson, left, and John Tyson, right, plan on attending a meeting in Ottawa on Wednesday to fins out about their pension options. (Julie Ireton/CBC )

At 95, former Nortel executive Dave Stevenson plans to drive himself down to a town hall meeting in Ottawa Wednesday to find out more about the future of his Nortel pension.

More than 20,000 Nortel pensioners and former workers have been invited to similar meetings across the country over the next month, gatherings meant to help them figure out what to do when the company's pension plan finally winds down. Decisions have to be made by the end of the year.

Stevenson has no intention of being a wallflower.

"I'm going to write notes … so I know what to listen for and ask at the meeting," said Stevenson.

It's been years now since Stevenson and other former workers lost more than 30 per cent of their pensions, along with all their promised life insurance and health and dental benefits.

Stevenson developed "four or five" of Nortel's valuable patents during his long career at the once-mighty Bell-Northern Research — later Nortel — in Ottawa.

"I thought the pension was good for life, like most pensions should be," he said.

Thick information packages

Over the last few weeks, former Nortel employees have been receiving thick packages of legal and accounting forms describing the complicated decisions they'll need to make.

They'll have to decide whether they want to take what's left in their pensions as a lump sum, or put the money into an annuity — a fixed amount that would be paid out annually.

They're fairly big decisions for these people to make.- Susan Philpott, Koskie Minsky LLP

Toronto law firm Koskie Minsky LLP has been representing pensioners during the court proceedings, and the firm's lawyers and actuaries will be at the meetings to answer questions.

Susan Philpott, a partner with the firm, said the information packages that have been sent to former workers are lengthy and complicated.

"They're fairly big decisions for these people to make. So these information sessions are being held ... to explain those packages to people," said Philpott.

Complex process, difficult choices

John Tyson is another Nortel patent developer, an industrial designer who worked his way up to the vice president level by the time he retired from the company.
Former Nortel executive John Tyson wrote a memoir celebrating the innovation at Northern Telecom and Bell-Northern Research. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Decades younger than his former boss Dave Stevenson, Tyson is more frank about what the bankruptcy has meant to workers — particularly the widows who are now collecting survivor pensions, some of whom he's been trying to guide through the complex process.

"They're older folks, they don't have computers, they're not on the internet," said Tyson, who also plans to attend the meeting.

"I've read the 12 or 13 pages[of the pension information package] three times, but I can tell you I don't know what choice to make that I can recommend to them yet. I don't know."

Bankruptcy case dragging on

After nearly eight years, Nortel's prolonged international bankruptcy case is not yet over, with $11 billion in bankruptcy proceeds still to be divided.

Former Nortel workers and pensioners are still claimants in the bankruptcy case and hope to eventually get a settlement.

"I wish I could wave my magic wand and make it be over so everyone could get a payout, but it's not resolved yet," said lawyer Susan Philpott.

For Nortel's Canadian pensioners, the inequalities in the Nortel case still rankle. John Tyson said if he had spent his entire Nortel career in the U.S., instead of just 10 years, his pension would be secure.

"I have a U.S. pension," said Tyson. "My American pension is whole. I didn't get a 35 per cent reduction. After this is settled, I'll still have 100 per cent of my American pension, and I will not have anywhere close to that in my Canadian pension."