Early retirement money available for local mill workers

But reading the fine print is important

Canfor workers here are eligible for early retirement bridging payments. (file photo)

Canfor’s millworkers at Plateau in Vanderhoof qualify for a provincial government early retirement bridging program but individual circumstances will vary.

First announced in September but with details released only late last month, millworkers could, based on individual wishes and eligibility, receive up to $75,000 meant to provide a cushion leading up to the start of regular pension payments.

There are two ways in which millworkers could qualify — one is by voluntarily agreeing to retire right away and the second requires waiting until mid-January of next year to apply.

In the first circumstance, an employer has to agree that there will be no skills gap created by retiring right away and that a younger worker can fill the vacancy.

In the second circumstance, a worker has to wait until mid-January of next year because that’s four months after mid-September when Canfor here went to a four-day week. Under early retirement eligibility rules, workers have to wait for four months after their work time was affected.

Basic eligibility requirements are the same for both circumstances — a worker has to be at least 55 years of age when an application is submitted and has to have been employed at a mill for the last two consecutive years or have their time affected since May 1, 2019.

If “you agree that if you receive bridging to retirement benefits, you will permanently vacate your position, lose your seniority and agree to not be employed within any industry for 18 months,” program rules indicate.

In addition to Canfor’s workers here, workers at the company’s Houston mill can also qualify as that facility also went on a four-day week in mid-September.

The province says $40 million has been allocated for the early retirement bridging program, part of the $69 million package announced in September in response to permanent or temporary mill closures caused by the high cost of supplying fibre to mills, supply shortages and low market prices.

But the $40 million early retirement portion is to be cost-shared between the province and participating companies and, so far, there’s been no agreement on how that will take place.

“Ministry executives are meeting and consulting with industry representatives and the details of cost-sharing are being developed,” a labour ministry statement last week indicated.

And the early retirement bridging program is only available to millworkers. Employees of contractors who log and ship fibre to mills, even if they have also been affected by mill closures, don’t qualify.

There was no specific reason given as to why employees of contractors aren’t also eligible, but the labour ministry pointed to other portions of the $69 million aid package.

There’s $15 million for short-term forest employment programs, including fire prevention and $12 million in additional programs and employer grants for skills training.

Another $2 million is for a job placement coordination office.

To date nine short term employment programs have been authorized around the province with just one of those in the north and that’s in Fort St. James where a mill owned by Conifex has been permanently closed.

Workers there are clearing 60 hectares of potential wildfire fibre along the south boundary of Mount Pope Provincial Park.

In the meantime, Canfor expects to hear this month if its application for federal employment insurance benefits will be accepted for workers here and at Houston who are off work for the one day a week the mills are closed.

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