font size:  Increase font size   Decrease font size

« back to what's new

The Globe and Mail

Teachers pension plan faces human-rights complaints

Jeff Gray – Law Reporter
Published: Monday, May 9, 2011

A group of retirees, widows and widowers is hauling the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan before the province's human rights tribunal, accusing the plan of discriminating in its rules that determine how much money the spouse of dead plan members receive.

The move is the latest from the Ontario Teachers’ Survivor Benefit Group, who have been fighting the massive provincial plan for a decade over the rules, which are common in other pension plans.

The provisions at issue refuse full survivor benefits to a member's spouse if the couple marries after the plan member retires. Spouses who are married to retirees on the day they retire are fully covered by survivor benefits.

"It's not right, it's not fair, and it's not equitable," said Lois Maxim, a former teacher at a Toronto Catholic school. Ms. Maxim, 60, married her second husband, Mark, in 2008, five years after she retired.

Ms. Maxim, who paid into the pension plan throughout her 29-year teaching career, said she joined the Ontario Teachers’ Survivor Benefit Group after she learned that her second husband would be ineligible for full survivor benefits unless she gave up 8 per cent of her pension cheque in exchange.

The group said Monday it is filing 81 human-rights complaints with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, accusing the pension plan of discriminating on the basis of marital status and gender: those who are unmarried at the time of retirement and women, who are most likely to need survivor benefits.

Teachers, which administers the plan on behalf of the province's Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers' Federation, says the idea is costly and not required by Ontario's pension laws.

Teachers spokeswoman Deborah Allan also noted that under the current plan, spouses who come along after the plan member retires are entitled to a capped 10 years of benefits.

The group challenging Teachers points out that the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System changed its rules in 1991 to provide full survivor benefits to spouses acquired after retirement. Pension plans for teachers in at least five other provinces have also made similar changes, the group says.

But Ms. Allan said Teachers does not have extra cash to throw around: "From what I understand, plans did that when they had a surplus. We certainly do not have a surplus." Pension experts say the provision the group is demanding is a rarity, because pension amounts are generally set upon retirement.

"There are very few pension plans that allow for that," said Mark Newton, a pension lawyer with Heenan Blaikie LLP in Toronto, who predicted the human-rights complaint wouldn't go far. "The Teachers plan is rich as it is, and then to provide that additional benefit would be unusual."

The group's lawyer, Bob Keel, argues that it would not cost Teachers a prohibitive amount to change the rules, but said he did not have definite numbers.

He said his clients' 10-year fight shows no signs of ending any time soon: "The unfortunate thing is that I suspect that by the time this thing is resolved, many of our members will be deceased."