Fight Over Reduction Of GM Retiree Benefits Not Over

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General Motors of Canada suffered a blow this summer when an Ontario court held that GM was not entitled to reduce benefits it had promised to its retired workers. The decision can be found here.

GM informed non-union retirees in 2009 that as a cost-cutting measure, GM had to reduce benefits that it had promised to certain retirees while they were employed. The reductions included significantly lower amounts of life insurance, and the elimination of semi-private hospital coverage. The retirees responded with a class action claiming that they were “stunned” by GM’s actions, and that GM’s actions were illegal. GM’s position was that language in employee booklets allowed it to make such changes. GM’s employee booklets had typical language that purported to give GM the right to make changes to all benefits, “at any time”. The Ontario Superior Court of Justice disagreed with GM’s position. The language in GM’s employee booklets wasn’t sufficiently clear, said the Court, to allow GM to impose the unilateral changes on retirees following their retirement. The Court made very helpful comments about exactly what wording in employee booklets may be effective to give an employer the legal right to reduce retiree benefits.

It is common for employers to change employee benefits promised to current, non-union employees. The considerations for terminated or retired employees are very different. The recent GM case confirms the reality that Canadian courts will likely not allow employers to unilaterally change the benefits of non-union retirees, unless the employer has communicated that possibility very clearly to the employees while they were employed.

GM has not given up the fight. It has announced that it will appeal the Court’s decision. Meanwhile, employers would be well-advised to take a look at the wording in their employee booklets and other benefit communications that says benefits can be changed in future. Will that language withstand a court challenge that it isn’t sufficiently broad or clear to allow changes to be made? The answer may lie in the reasons for judgment in the GM case and pending appeal.