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Costs of Accommodation: British Columbia Supreme Court Reaffirms High Threshold for Undue Hardship

In a July 2016 decision, Providence Health Care v. Dunkley, 2016 BCSC 1383, the British Columbia Supreme Court held that Providence Health Care (PHC) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) failed to establish that the costs of providing interpreter services for a deaf medical resident constituted undue hardship.

The decision is a reminder of the demands placed on employers to accommodate, and that a successful undue hardship defence based on financial reasons will require extensive financial disclosure on the part of the employer and related entities.

Briefly, the facts of the case were as follows. The claimant secured a residency position at PHC, a local hospital. Due to a profound hearing loss, she required the use of sign language interpreters. On the residency start date, arrangements for interpreter services had not been made and a few months later, the claimant was placed on paid leave, followed by unpaid leave.  PHC subsequently informed her that accommodation could not be provided and dismissed her from PHC as an employee and from UBC as a resident.  The claimant filed a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, who found that PHC and UBC had discriminated against her on the basis of her physical disability.  The Tribunal concluded that PHC discriminated against the respondent regarding employment, contrary to s. 13 of the British Columbia Human Rights Code, while UBC discriminated against her by denying her accommodation, services or facilities customarily available to the public, contrary to s. 8 of the Code.

On judicial review, the British Columbia Supreme Court upheld the Tribunal’s decision.  The Court reaffirmed that the relevant considerations were the employer’s efforts to accommodate; the options explored and/or offered to the employee; and explanations given for the absence of such offers.

The Court upheld the Tribunal’s finding that PHC had used an unreliable cost estimate, and that both PHC and UBC had failed to undertake a reasonable investigation into the true cost of accommodation. Further, the Court confirmed that PHC could not base its claim of undue hardship only on its own budgetary restrictions.  The financial resources of UBC, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCHA) and the Ministry of Health were also relevant since those entities were either affiliates of PHC or had agreed to provide it with funding for the UBC residency program.  Consequently, PHC should have explored the possibility of obtaining additional financial resources from those entities or establishing a cost sharing model as part of its investigation into costs.

The Providence Health Care v. Dunkley decision highlights that employers must prove that they have engaged in a comprehensive investigation into the true cost of accommodation, including an assessment of all sources of funding available, before they successfully rely on undue hardship.

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Costs of Accommodation: British Columbia Supreme Court Reaffirms High Threshold for Undue Hardship

Is This The Definitive Word on Termination Provisions/Consideration?

A series of Ontario cases dating back to 2012 has put into issue the question of what does, or doesn’t, make a termination provision enforceable.  After a number of recent employer-friendly decisions, the Ontario Court of Appeal has weighed in with a decision that contains some good news, and some bad news, for employers.

In Wood v. Fred Deeley Imports Ltd., the court primarily looked at: (i) whether or not consideration was required to uphold an employment agreement; and (ii) whether the termination provision in the agreement was unenforceable (thereby opening the door to a common law notice award).  The Plaintiff, Julia Wood, was an 8.4 year employee at the time of her termination.  She signed an employment agreement the day after she started work that contained a termination provision which provided for “2 weeks’ notice of termination or pay in lieu thereof for each completed or partial year of employment…”.  The termination provision also stated that “… the Company shall not be obliged to make any payments to you other than those provided for in this paragraph” and “The payments and notice provided for in this paragraph are inclusive of your entitlements to notice, pay in lieu of notice and severance pay pursuant to the Employment Standards Act, 2000”. On termination, the employer provided Wood with 13 weeks of working notice, followed by a lump sum payment equal to 8 weeks of pay.

In looking first at the consideration issue, the court found that Wood had been provided with a copy of the Agreement prior to her start date, although it wasn’t signed until the day after she started work.  The court determined that this was not a case where Wood was seeing the Agreement for the first time when she signed it, nor was it a case where a new material term was introduced into the Agreement at the time of signing.  The court went on to find that the signing of the Agreement the day after Wood commenced employment was merely an administrative convenience and therefore fresh consideration such as a signing bonus was not required in order to make the Agreement valid and enforceable.  The employer was therefore successful in arguing that the Agreement was not void for lack of consideration.

However, things went downhill from there for the employer.  In looking at the termination provision, the court found that it contravened the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA) and therefore was unenforceable.  It came to this conclusion for two reasons.  First, the court found that because the termination provision did not expressly require the continuation of benefits through the ESA notice period, it was in contravention of the minimum standards of the ESA.  This was so even though the employer gratuitously provided benefit continuance through the entirety of the ESA notice period.

Second, the court found that although it was possible that the termination provision could provide notice and statutory severance in accordance with or even in excess of the ESA, it was also possible for it to undercut the minimum provisions of the ESA.  Simply put, even though the “2 weeks per year” calculation could potentially result in the employee receiving more than her ESA notice and severance entitlements, it could also have the opposite effect.  In particular, Wood received less than her ESA severance in the case at hand because the payment of 8 weeks at the end of her working notice period was less than the 8.4 weeks of severance that she was entitled to under the ESA.

The court reviewed termination provisions in other cases and once again made it clear that each case will be decided based on its own facts.  For example, a termination provision which is not well drafted but does not expressly contract out of the ESA may yet be enforceable, despite this case. On the other hand, a termination provision which expressly contracts out of the ESA, as was the case here, will not be enforceable.

The broken record continues – the importance of properly drafting termination provisions cannot be understated and with so much at stake, it is critical that employers regularly review and update their termination provisions with the assistance of legal counsel.

The court’s decision in Wood v. Free Deeley Imports Ltd. may be found here.

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Is This The Definitive Word on Termination Provisions/Consideration?

Who is a “parent” in the Ontario pension world? And why does it matter?

Any person who is the “spouse” of a member of a registered pension plan in Canada has rights regarding the pension entitlement of his or her partner. That important policy has been entrenched in pension legislation for decades.  Exactly who is a “spouse”?  The answer to that question has recently become a bit more complicated.

The Ontario government changed the Ontario Pension Benefits Act effective January 1, 2017 to recognize the evolving definition of a family, for legal purposes.  Administrators of registered pension plans should take steps now to ensure that their pension plan documentation and administration is keeping up with these changes.  Reputational and financial costs could be imposed on pension plan administrators who fail to recognize spouses’ rights to pensions, in this modern world where there has been an evolution of what constitutes a spouse.

The basic rules in Ontario are that two people are spouses for pension purposes if they are married to each other, or they fall within one of the following two categories:

  • they have been living in a conjugal relationship continuously for at least three years, or
  • they have been living in a conjugal relationship of some permanence for less than three years and are the parents of a child.

Effective January 1, 2017 a change was made to Ontario pension benefits legislation that is relevant to the phrase, “parents of a child”.

Prior to 2017, the Ontario legislation said that spousal pension rights under the parent category were triggered if the plan member and his or her partner were “the natural or adoptive parents of a child”.  That wording was simple.  Arguably, it did not capture circumstances where a child was conceived with assisted reproduction.  And it certainly did not address the complex issues of surrogacy or sperm donors.

The Ontario government has stepped in to address these complex issues. The definition of “parents of a child” in the Ontario pension benefits legislation now refers to provisions of the Ontario Children’s Law Reform Act.  That legislation has detailed provisions that address the complicated question of “who is a parent?”.  These are not simple provisions.  For example, they address circumstances of surrogacy where entitlement to parentage has been waived.  They also address circumstances of sperm donors where there is a written agreement, prior to conception, confirming that the donor does not intend to be a parent.

Pension plan administrators should consult their advisors to understand how to navigate these new requirements. Pension plan texts, member booklets, forms, and all other communications and administration must align with these changes.  Administrators will have to rely on experts to determine whether an individual is a spouse of a pension plan member, if the two individuals have been living together for less than three years, but may qualify as “spouses” because there is a child.

Administrators have a legal obligation to ensure that the correct individuals receive their pension entitlements. That means that these new Ontario requirements should be considered and implemented in all aspects of documentation and administration.

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Who is a “parent” in the Ontario pension world? And why does it matter?

2016 Labour and Employment Law – A Year in Review (in 140 characters or less)

As we close out the first month of 2017, we thought it appropriate to briefly review the cases which caught our eye in 2016 in 140 characters or less:

  1. Wilson v. Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., 2016 SCC 29 – @SCC_eng confirms Federally regulated employers cannot be dismissed without cause.
  2. Paquette v. TeraGo Networks Inc., 2016 ONCA 618 / Lin v. Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, 2016 ONCA 619 – Requirement of “Active Employment” on payout date without something more is not enough to limit employee’s bonus entitlement over notice period.
  3. Oudin v. Centre Francophone de Toronto, 2016 ONCA 514 – ONCA upholds less than perfect termination provision that does not contemplate the continuation of benefits.
  4. Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 113 v. Toronto Transit Commission (Use of Social Media Grievance) – Beware, Twitter can be an extension of the workplace.
  5. Strudwick v. Applied Consumer & Clinical Evaluations Inc, 2016 ONCA 520 – Court of Appeal doubles the initial award of damages against employer for bad behaviour.

Turning to the future, we invite you to join us at our complimentary webinar on February 9, 2017 as we will be discussing the trends that employers can expect to see in 2017.

Details are available by clicking here

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2016 Labour and Employment Law – A Year in Review (in 140 characters or less)

Ontario regulatory form regarding pension plan contributions: comply!

Trustees and administrators of Ontario registered pension plans: beware of Form 7.

That’s the form that administrators of registered pension plans must complete, and send to their pension fund trustees, that summarizes the estimated employer and employee contributions that will be due to be made to the pension plans in future. The form must be provided by the registered administrator of every Ontario registered pension plan to the trustee, at least annually.  If there’s a change to the estimated future pension contribution requirements, the administrator must send a revised Form 7 to the pension fund trustee within 60 days of becoming aware of the change.

Trustees of pension plans (which for this purpose include insurance companies) are not required to complete Form 7’s. But trustees have an important, independent legal obligation to notify the Ontario Superintendent of Financial Services if they do not receive the required Form 7.  Further, if contributions to the pension plan are not received by the trustee in accordance with the estimates in the Form 7 received by the trustee, the trustee must notify the Superintendent.  There are prescribed time limits for all of these requirements.

In essence, the Form 7 rules require pension fund trustees to police timely plan contributions. The law requires trustees to blow the whistle if a plan administrator is not making contributions on time.

In 2013 a trustee was prosecuted in Ontario for failing to report the non-filing of a Form 7 with respect to a plan administrator who eventually filed for bankruptcy protection from its creditors. The trustee plead guilty and was fined $50,000.

The gravity of compliance with Form 7 rules was recently emphasized by the Ontario pension regulator in an announcement that can be found here.  A few days ago, the regulator released a revised Form 7 that can be found here, as well as a comprehensive User Guide that can be found here, to assist plan administrators in completing Form 7.  It also released two new standardized templates, to be used by pension fund trustees to report to the Superintendent when a plan administrator fails to submit a Form 7, or fails to make the contributions as summarized in a Form 7.  The templates can be found here.

Although Form 7 is a prescribed form, it does not have to be filed with the Ontario pension regulator. It is simply a required communication from plan administrators to pension fund trustees.  Do not take this as an indication that the Ontario pension regulator is indifferent about compliance with the Form 7 rules.  It has clearly demonstrated that it requires compliance, and it has provided a guide and templates to assist the pension industry with the rules.

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Ontario regulatory form regarding pension plan contributions: comply!

Witness the Creation of Ontario’s Modern Pension Regulator

To remain relevant and effective, industry regulators need to stay current. They must be attentive to economic realities, adapt to new technology and evolve with the industries they regulate. Ontario’s pension regulator is overdue for a major overhaul that will bring it into the 21st century.

Ontario’s Fall 2016 Economic Statement announced that government’s intention to introduce a new financial services regulator which will be known by the acronym FSRA (Financial Services Regulatory Authority). The FSRA announcement came shortly after the release of the Final Report, of the Ontario Expert Advisory Panel mandated to examine the Financial Services Commission, Financial Services Tribunal and Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The March 31, 2016, cover letter that accompanied the Panel’s Final Report stated that its recommendations for a ‘world-class regulatory system’ were prepared with “both the present and future in mind, and in light of industry and regulatory trends here and around the world.” It also recognized the rapid pace of change in the financial and pension sectors and concluded that the agencies under review had to be modernized and sufficiently independent, flexible, innovative and expert to facilitate the changes in governance, structure and accountability necessary to achieve the desired result.

Panel recommendations of particular relevance to the pension industry include:

  • FSRA should operate as an integrated financial services regulator with responsibility for, among other things, consumer protection (referred to as ‘market conduct’), prudential oversight and pension plans;
  • FSRA should be directed to protect beneficiaries while promoting a strong sustainable pension system that would operate in an efficient and fair manner, balancing the interests of all parties;
  • FSRA’s mandate should require it to use its authority to adequately, firmly and consistently discourage fraudulent activities or behaviours that mislead or harm consumers and pension plan beneficiaries;
  • FSRA’s mandate should require that it undertake its activities in a proactive manner;
  • to remain relevant and flexible, FSRA’s mandate should include a commitment to innovation and transparency – to stay abreast of those issues that could compromise its ability to satisfy its mandate;
  • the existing Financial Services Tribunal, which is housed within the current Financial Services Commission and, therefore, subject to potential conflicts, should be established as an independent tribunal with its own budget funded by government; and
  • the Financial Services Tribunal should have authority to adjudicate matters clearly articulated in its enabling statute, including appeals from certain decisions of FSRA.

Bill 70, Building Ontario Up for Everyone Act (Budget Measures), 2016, was introduced by the Ontario government on November 16, 2016, and passed ‘First Reading’ in the Legislative Assembly. Among other things, this omnibus legislation would:

  • enact legislation establishing FSRA, replacing both the Financial Services Commission and Deposit Insurance Corporation; and
  • amend the Pension Benefits Act (Ontario) (PBA) to provide the Superintendent of Pensions with authority to impose significant administrative penalties for contravening or failing to comply with the PBA.

It is too soon to tell whether all aspects of the Panel’s recommendations will be implemented by the Ontario government. The proposed legislation is bare bones and creates only the framework for the FSRA. It does not set a clear mandate other than the fact that FSRA will regulate specific financial sectors of the Ontario economy.

On the other hand, proposed changes to the PBA clearly demonstrate a new regime involving administrative penalties – a hallmark of modern regulatory systems, providing the muscle to enforce compliance. If adopted, the amendments will enable the Superintendent to quickly impose meaningful administrative penalties (up to $25K for corporations and $10K for individuals) to ensure compliance with legislative requirements, orders and undertakings. As an added jolt, administrative penalties may not be paid from the pension fund of an offending administrator.

While there is a right to a hearing if an administrative penalty is proposed by the Superintendent, the process is swifter and more appropriate than current regulatory measures that require Crown prosecution under the Provincial Offences Act (Ontario). The difference between an administrative penalty and offences prosecution can be likened to the difference between a speeding ticket and a drunk-driving charge. Both involve motor vehicles, but in the former case you can pay your fine and drive away, while in the latter you’re obliged to spend time in court and will likely want a lawyer.

Bill 70 represents an initial response to the Panel’s numerous recommendations. Nevertheless, with just these preliminary changes, pension administrators and their agents should brace for more fines and greater enforcement in the future. Industry professionals expect the Ontario government to implement more Panel recommendations in 2017 and sense that they are witnessing the creation of a modern, responsive and far more dynamic pension regulatory system for Ontario.

Witness the Creation of Ontario’s Modern Pension Regulator

Environmental, Social and Governance Factors: Should Pension Plan Administrators Look to Rating Agencies for Links Between ESG and Credit Worthiness of Target Investments?

In my August 17, 2016 post (found here), I summarized Ontario’s recent changes to the Pension Benefits Act and Regulation that require a pension plan’s statement of investment policies and procedures (“SIPP”) to include information as to whether environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) factors are incorporated into the plan’s SIPP and, if so, how those factors are incorporated.  I noted that while the incorporation of ESG factors into a pension plan’s SIPP is not a statutory requirement, the question arises as to whether a failure to consider ESG factors in your pension plan’s SIPP could be a breach of fiduciary duty.  I didn’t answer the question directly but did say that many of Canada’s largest public sector pension funds have now incorporated ESG into their investment policies.

Given that provincial pension legislation requires plan administrators to exercise the care, diligence and skill that a person of ordinary prudence would exercise when dealing with the property of another person, would that exercise not, by logical extension, include investigation of the consideration of ESG factors in the assessment of creditworthiness of investee entities?

Recent announcements by some of the world’s largest credit rating agencies recognize that ESG factors can affect borrowers’ cash flows and the corresponding likelihood that they may default on their debts. S&P Global Ratings, Moody’s, Dagong, Scope, RAM Ratings and Liberum Ratings signed a “Statement on ESG in Credit Ratings” (the “Statement”) in May of this year acknowledging that ESG factors are important elements in assessing creditworthiness of borrowers and, for corporations, “concerns such as stranded assets linked to climate change, labour relations or lack of transparency around accounting practices can cause unexpected losses, expenditure, inefficiencies, litigation, regulatory pressure and reputational impacts.”

Included in the Statement are 100 investors managing US $16 trillion of assets, all of whom are signatories to the six UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment wherein the investors affirmed their commitment to:

  • incorporate ESG factors into investment analysis and decision-making processes;
  • seek appropriate disclosure on ESG issues by investee entities; and
  • report on activities and progress towards implementing responsible investment.

Several well-known Canadian institutional investment corporations are included in the list of 100 investors.

Rating agency reports that incorporate ESG factors in the assessment of credit risk may soon form part of the statement of the valuation method process required by pension regulators.

The Fall 2016 Corporate Knights article, Credit ratings and climate change, cited a 2015 report from the Center for International Environmental Law, which accused the rating agencies of repeating their risk analysis mistakes from the sub-prime mortgage debacle when it comes to fossil fuel investments: “In assuming a business as usual scenario, rating agencies may be artificially inflating the credit ratings and financial value of companies that contribute to global warming”.  The report added that “This poses significant risks for investors, and the climate, and could expose rating agencies themselves to legal liability.” The May 2016 Statement on ESG in Credit Ratings appears to be the first step in addressing the gap in credit rating which doesn’t necessarily consider sustainability and governance factors in credit ratings and analysis.

Plan administrators should seek legal advice to ensure their fiduciary duties are fulfilled when they embark on considering ESG factors in their investment decision making process.

Environmental, Social and Governance Factors: Should Pension Plan Administrators Look to Rating Agencies for Links Between ESG and Credit Worthiness of Target Investments?

Ontario Pension Advisory Committees

If you are involved with the administration of an Ontario registered pension plan, you should familiarize yourself with new Ontario rules regarding pension advisory committees. The new rules will be effective January 1, 2017.  They give significant additional rights to plan members, and could impose extra costs and administrative burdens on plan administrators.  You can find the new rules here: Ontario Pension Advisory Committee Rules

I wrote about these new rules a few weeks ago, when draft regulations were released by the Ontario government. The regulations are now final and are described in my article here: Pension Article

It is possible that these new rules will have no impact on your plan. If unions and plan members take no action, plan administrators are under no obligation to take any action.  There will be no pension advisory committee in that case.  But if a request is made by a union, or by at least ten members of a plan (including retirees), the new rules will be triggered.  The rules set out a clear and detailed process to communicate the request with all plan members, distribute materials and conduct a vote.

If a vote to establish an advisory committee is successful, the plan administrator is then required to do several things, including:

  • hold the initial meeting,
  • give the committee or its representative “such information as is under the administrator’s control and is required by the committee or its representative for the purposes of the committee”,
  • make the plan actuary available to meet with the committee at least annually if the plan provides defined benefits,
  • ensure that the committee has access to an individual who can report on the investments of the pension fund at least annually, and
  • provide administrative assistance to the committee.

The pension advisory committee will not have any legal authority to dictate how the plan should be administered. The new legislation says simply that “[T]he purposes of an advisory committee are (a) to monitor the administration of the pension plan; (b) to make recommendations to the administrator respecting the administration of the pension plan; and (c) to promote awareness and understanding of the pension plan.”

Reasonable costs related to the establishment and operation of the committee are payable out of the pension fund.

Please contact a member of the Pension, Benefits and Executive Compensation group at Dentons Canada LLP for more information about this potentially significant change to the governance of Ontario registered pension plans.

Ontario Pension Advisory Committees

Agency personnel in the healthcare sector: who is the real employer?

In recent years, the Québec Tribunal administratif du travail (the “TAT”) (formerly the Commission des relations du travail) has frequently been called on to address the legal implications involved in the hiring of temporary employees through personnel agencies in the health and social services field.

Most recently, in the case of Professionel (le)s en soins de santé unis (FIQ) and Centre intégré universitaire de santé et services sociaux de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal[1], the TAT ruled on the issue as to whether nursing and cardio-respiratory professionals who were assigned to the Montréal West Island Integrated University Health and Social Services Centre (the “Centre”) through personnel agencies were included in the Centre’s Professionnel(le)s en soins de santé unis’ bargaining unit (the “Bargaining Unit”), since the union had filed an application under section 39 of the Labour Code, CQLR, c. C-27 to have these professionals included in the said Bargaining Unit.

The union argued that its request was consistent with the principles established by the Supreme Court of Canada (the “Supreme Court”) in Pointe-Claire (City) v Quebec (Labour Court) (“Pointe-Claire”)[2] which promoted a comprehensive and flexible approach to the identification of the “real employer” in a tripartite relationship. In this context, the union emphasised the particular institutional framework of health and social services to support its contention that the true employer was the Centre and not the personnel agencies.

The issue was decided upon on August 25th 2016 by Mr. André Michaud from the TAT, who ruled that in light of the particular institutional framework of health and social services in Québec, the real employer of the temporary employees hired through personnel agencies was the Centre and not the personnel agencies. Hence, the temporary employees were included in the Bargaining Unit.

In reaching this decision, the TAT began its analysis by examining the criteria set forth in Pointe-Claire in order to identify the real employer in the tripartite relationship. The TAT held that the temporary employees assigned by the personnel agencies had to adapt to the strict working conditions of the Centre and were fully integrated into teams of different services or care units. These employees were directly under the control of the Centre. The Court added that the temporary employees had to perform the same tasks, in the same manner and under the same conditions as the permanent employees of the Centre. Furthermore, they were overseen by the same supervisors and used the same equipment in the facilities. From a patient’s perspective, no distinction could be made between both categories of employees. Finally, the TAT underlined that the purpose of using the services of said agencies was not for their nursing expertise but rather for their specific expertise in providing qualified professionals who had such expertise. The Centre communicated very specific requirements with respect to the necessary qualifications and training of the temporary employees and the personnel agencies would in turn find the appropriate candidates. As such, the Centre directly and indirectly controlled almost every aspect of the temporary employees’ hire and working conditions. For all of these reasons, the TAT concluded that the Centre was actually the real employer of the professionals who were assigned to the Centre through personnel agencies.

The implications of the TAT’s findings in this case are highly important because there may be an increase of requests under section 39 of the Labour Code to have all the professionals assigned through personnel agencies included in the employer’s pre-existing bargaining units.

It is worthy to note that this decision is currently undergoing judicial review as both the Centre and personnel agencies argue that the TAT reached its conclusions by misinterpreting the health and social services institutional framework, and without sufficient evidence on the criteria defined by the Supreme Court in Pointe-Claire such as the legal subordination, the selection, discipline and evaluation process as well as the assignment of duties, remuneration and integration into the Centre. We will follow the developments in this important matter with great interest.

[1] 2016 QCTAT 5036.

[2] [1997] 1 SCR 1015.

Agency personnel in the healthcare sector: who is the real employer?

Target Benefit Plans: A New Proposed Plan Design Option for Federally-Regulated Employers

On October 19, 2016, the federal government introduced Bill C-27 which, if passed, will permit federally-regulated employers to establish single-employer and multi-employer target benefit plans.  The bill proposes to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985 to add target benefit plans as an alternative to the traditional defined benefit (DB) and defined contribution (DC) plan design options.  Following the steps of other Canadian jurisdictions like New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia, Bill C-27 addresses the perceived need for alternative pension plan designs as a way to increase and/or improve pension plan coverage in the private sector.  If you are a federally-regulated employer seeking to establish a new pension plan, or re-evaluate or re-design your current pension and retirement savings program, you may want to consider target benefit plans.

Target benefit plans contain both DB and DC plan design features. They aim to provide members with a defined monthly pension benefit at retirement, similar to a DB plan, but are funded through fixed contributions, like in a DC plan.  Depending on the funding level of the plan, benefits (including accrued benefits and future benefits) may be adjusted.

Like other provincially regulated employers, federally-regulated employers (such as banks, airlines, railways and telecommunications companies) are seeking ways to control the volatility of pension contributions and the often corresponding negative impact on their balance sheets associated with DB plan designs. The ability to create target benefit plans would offer employers with an opportunity to provide sustainable and predictable pension benefits with more cost certainty and without the solvency liability risk associated with traditional DB plans.

While many details regarding the federal target benefit plan framework will be set out in regulations that have yet to be released, some of the main features being proposed include the following:

  • Target benefit plans must be created as new plans.  Converting an existing pension plan into a target benefit plan will not be permitted.  However, pension benefits under an existing pension plan may be surrendered by members in exchange for pension benefits under a target benefit plan with the member’s informed consent.
  • Target benefit plans must be administered by a board of trustees or other similar body.
  • A written governance policy must be established for the plan, in accordance with the regulations.
  • A funding policy must be established for the plan.  The funding policy is required to include, among other things, the rate of employer and, if applicable, employee contributions; the objectives of the plan with respect to pension benefit stability; a deficit recovery plan; and a surplus utilization plan.
  • Once a target benefit plan’s objectives regarding pension benefit stability are established, they cannot be amended.  In addition, an amendment reducing accrued benefits is void unless it complies with the plan’s funding policy.
  • If DB benefits under an existing pension plan are surrendered and transferred to a target benefit plan and the target benefit plan is terminated within five years of the transfer, members will be entitled to the greater of the benefit under the original pension plan and the target benefit plan.

The introduction of Bill C-27 is a positive step towards providing more choice to employers in pension plan design options which will hopefully encourage more employers to offer, and continue to offer, pension plans as part of their employee benefits package.

We will keep you posted on any new developments regarding target benefit plans and the proposed federal legislation.

Target Benefit Plans: A New Proposed Plan Design Option for Federally-Regulated Employers