The clock is ticking for about 400 soon-to-be former Nortel employees who will lose their long-term disability benefits by the end of the year unless a new bill is passed in Ottawa.

The employees, who are to be laid off by the end of the year, all paid into the disability fund at the communications company, believing they would be protected. The long-term disability fund, however, has had to take a back seat to preferred creditors collecting debt, because the company is in bankruptcy protection.

Nortel took payments, never bought insurance policy

A self-insured company, Nortel did not seek out insurance, but instead used general revenues to pay out liabilities for workers on leave, including Josee Marin and Peter Burns, both suffering from chronic illness and both at risk of losing their benefits on Dec. 31.

"I say to myself, ‘What is this? Where do I go from here?'" said Burns, who was diagnosed with a tumour in his spine, has not been able to work since an operation produced a blood clot.

"I have chronic pain from my waist down and the blood clot also caused a stroke and that stroke affected a part of my brain that organizes things," said Burns.

Marin, who struggles with scleroderma and Crohn's disease, believed she would be protected in case of a disability like hers.

"(I thought) I would be paid until I was 65 or until I die or until I can resume work," said Marin.

"You get a grip and you try your best of what you can with what you have left," said Marin. "When you hear something like that you're left alone ... because without money there's no way you can survive."

Bill before the Senate

Marin and Burns have been working to get Bill S-216 passed before the end of the year in order to protect themselves and the other 400 former Nortel workers who were on disability leave when the company went into bankruptcy protection.

Sponsored by Liberal Senator Art Eggleton, Bill S-216 seeks to amend the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act and the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act in order to protect beneficiaries of long term disability benefits plans.

"If Nortel gets out of the obligation here, it puts it onto the taxpayer," said Eggleton.

"If their plan doesn't continue by the end of the year, they could be on social welfare assistance. So they are going to get cut off their medical plan, they are going to get less than half the income they are getting now."

The bill would also protect the one million Canadians who work for self-insured companies.

"There are no rules," concerning self-insured companies, said Eggleton. "They don't have to fund it and they sometimes don't, and if they get into financial trouble the welfare trust can go down the tube very quickly."

The bill goes before the Senate this week.