A recent Supreme Court of British Columbia case raises the issue of whether employers may unilaterally change the terms of retiree benefits for already-retired employees.
In Lacey v. Weyerhaeuser Company Limited, five already-retired salaried employees of Weyerhaeuser (and its predecessor company) had a benefits package which included specific retirement benefits coverage paid for by the employer. On January 1, 2010, the employer unilaterally cut its contribution to the cost of their benefits coverage by 50%, and announced that the retirees would be responsible for bearing any future cost increases. The employer stated that these changes were being done to sustain the viability and affordability of the retiree plans and that the employer had the discretion as to whether to provide retirement health benefits. The five retirees sued.
The affected retirees did not have a written employment agreement setting out what benefits coverage would be provided after retirement. The Court, after reviewing the company policies and written and oral communications between management and the retirees, concluded that retiree health benefits were intended as a form of deferred compensation and not a gratuitous payment. Effectively, the employer’s promise to provide the retiree benefits coverage created a contractual obligation to continue to provide that coverage to employees who had already retired. Based on the contractual language in force at the applicable time, the right to make changes to the retirees’ benefits did not extend to changing the terms of an employee’s retirement health coverage after the date of retirement. As such, the retirees were entitled to the extended health benefits coverage as it existed on their date of retirement, without alteration to the scope of coverage, coverage limits or deductibles, and all at the employer’s expense.
A copy of the decision can be found here: http://courts.gov.bc.ca/jdb-txt/SC/12/03/2012BCSC0353.htm. A notice of appeal was filed on April 2, 2012.