Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Laid-off Aveos workers miffed by EI clawback

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WORKERS laid off from Aveos Fleet Management when it closed in March 2012 had to wait two months before they were able to collect employment insurance and are now being told they have to pay back those benefits.

That's because many of them also received separation-agreement payments starting in December 2012, after their EI benefits expired.

The separation payment was negotiated by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) with Air Canada in July 2011 prior to the transfer of ownership of the aircraft maintenance business -- that had been owned by Air Canada -- to the new company, Aveos.

That deal -- separation packages (two weeks' pay for every year worked for as much as 52 weeks) for up to 1,500 workers if Aveos went out of business before the end of 2013 -- was struck at least partly because of the fear workers had that the new owners would not be committed to continuing to operate the company,

Since the company was placed into court-ordered credit protection, the disbursement of the separation payments took many months to be finalized.

In the meantime, most of those laid-off workers -- including more than 300 in Winnipeg -- filed for and collected employment insurance.

In mid-December, 2012 the laid-off workers received a lump sum for half the separation benefit from Air Canada and are to receive the rest in biweekly payments.

"The (separation-agreement) cheque came out after my employment insurance premium expired," said Renald Courcelles, a former Aveos worker. "Now EI says we owe them. They want the money back."

Courcelles, a former interior mechanic with 22 years' experience at Aveos, is being asked to repay $16,000 to EI.

"The question on the EI form on my last period collecting EI was, 'Did you receive money from your previous employer during the period?' The answer is no," Courcelles said. "My previous employer was Aveos. The agreement was made with Air Canada not Aveos."

Courcelles and others said there is a difference between separation pay and severance pay.

There is a 30-day window to appeal the clawback. Courcelles said he and other former Aveos workers have sought assistance from the Community Unemployed Help Centre.

The executive director of the centre is on holidays and unavailable to comment.

Tony Didoshak, regional representative of the IAMAW said the separation agreement was negotiated because at the time Aveos was being created, the union worried about whether or not it was going to be a sustainable business.

"Our statement all along was that it was not viable," Didoshak said. "You're sending people to the great abyss."

As it turned out, Aveos did go out of business just as workers feared, and Air Canada is now using a number of different service providers for its aircraft-maintenance work.

"It's unfortunate and not fair for Aveos workers," Didoshak said. "They are not looking for free money. They are people just looking to survive."

But having said that, Didoshak said the union is not pursuing any challenges on the workers' behalf.

Another former Aveos worked in Winnipeg, who asked that his name not be used, said workers are very upset.

"Air Canada does not follow any of the rules," the worker said. "And who pays for it? The little guys on the street."

The closure of the maintenance hangars -- in Montreal, Mississauga, Ont., and Vancouver, as well as Winnipeg -- also prompted a legal challenge in Quebec to the 1988 Air Canada Participation Act.

In February, a Quebec judge ruled Air Canada violated the law by not keeping maintenance operations in Winnipeg, Montreal and Mississauga.

Air Canada is planning to appeal that ruling.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2013 B4

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