Severance Issue Before Cabinet

Overlooked group includes at least 13 men awarded the medal of bravery
for rescue efforts after the explosion

Severance Issue Before Cabinet
Will be Funded from the Sale
of Westray Assets

By Dean Jobb

This article appeared in
The Chronicle-Herald
Halifax, Thursday, 8 January 1998

Cabinet will discuss today whether to pay $1.2 million in severance to more than 100 unionized workers laid off after the Westray coal mine disaster.

And pressure is mounting for government to cover a separate severance claim by about 30 other former employees who were not in the bargaining unit.

A group of 117 workers represented by the United Steelworkers of America were awarded the severance package last week.

The Labor Standards Tribunal ruled Westray's operators failed to take measures to prevent the May 1992 explosion that killed 26 men and closed the mine.

The severance package will be funded from the sale of Westray's assets, which are now in the hands of the government. Cabinet will consider the union's request that the money be paid up front, with the government recovering the payment once the assets are sold.

A second group of geologists, engineers, foremen, secretaries and other non-union workers is seeking the same treatment, even though they missed the six-month deadline for filing a claim.

"We seem to have fallen through the cracks of the bureaucratic system," said Arden Thompson, a geologist who is acting as a spokesman for the group.

Mr. Thompson has twice written to Premier Russell MacLellan seeking help with the claim, but has yet to receive a response.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the premier's office, Peter MacLellan, could not say when, or if, the claim would be considered.

New Democratic Party Leader Robert Chisholm is calling on the government to ensure all former employees receive severance.

"These people feel with great justification that the government failed them when they worked at Westray and it is failing them again now," he said in a letter to Labor Minister Gerald O'Malley.

Workers wonder why the government was trying to "nail them to the letter of the law" for not filing a severance claim, he noted, when the government's failure to enforce safety laws was a factor in the disaster.

Mr. O'Malley was not available for comment Wednesday.

Mr. Thompson said his group should not be faulted for missing the filing deadline.

Unlike the unionized workers, his group did not have the funding and legal expertise to press a claim, he said.

Some members of the group have endured the same hardships as miners and other union workers, he said.

Mr. Thompson's group includes at least 13 men awarded the medal of bravery for rescue efforts after the explosion.

Many testified at the inquiry that ultimately blamed the disaster on the carelessness and incompetence of Westray managers and government mine inspectors.

The severance package is based on 12 weeks' pay for each employee. Union employees will receive between $6,000 and $12,000, including interest.

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