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Rescue worker takes Social Insurance Board to court over loss of pension

A rescue worker responding to a gas leak in Tallinn, Friday, March 24, 2023.
A rescue worker responding to a gas leak in Tallinn, Friday, March 24, 2023. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A rescue service (Päästeamet) employee, who has taken the Estonian Social Insurance Board (SKA) to court for refusing to pay a superannuated pension commensurate with his length of service, believes the SKA is acting unlawfully. While the Administrative Court ruled in the employee's favor, the case has now been brought to the Circuit Court.

Last August, Indrek celebrated 25 years of service with the Estonian Rescue Board (Päästeamet). This gave him the right to begin receiving a superannuated state pension, which is paid out to people working in certain hazardous professions. To claim his pension, Indrek applied to the Social Insurance Board (SKA), which is responsible for paying it.

However, on September 1 the same year, the SKA informed Indrek that he was in fact not entitled to a pension for the years he had worked for the rescue service, as he had not completed 25 years of service. It was at that time, in September 2022, that the SKA made changes to the way it interprets aspects of the Superannuated Pensions Act, and stopped counting periods spent on parental leave as time spent in service.

"This came as a big surprise to me, as an official from the SKA had called me at the beginning of August, saying I was about to reach my full length of service and that, based on my years of service, I could apply for a pension. And then, on September 1, when the children went back to school, I received a really interesting response," Indrek said.

He didn't leave it at that and immediately lodged an appeal for the board to review his application. Their reply remained unchanged.

"They referred to the employment register (TÖR), which showed that my employment was suspended while I was on parental leave. But the TÖR is something completely different and has nothing to do with the matter. However, they relied on the fact that, according to the register there was a period where I was not in service, and that was that."

It then became clear that Indrek had no other option but to take legal action. The Administrative Court, the court of first instance, ruled in Indrek's favor, however, following an appeal by the SKA, the case has now been brought before the Circuit Court.

What makes Indrek's case slightly unique, is that after completing 25 years with the rescue service, he had to leave his job. Now, he has returned to the service. However, if the SKA's new interpretation of the law remains in force, as Indrek's period of employment with the rescue service was interrupted, he will no longer be able to make up for those lost years, when it comes to determining his pension entitlement.

He is therefore left with two options: either he will receive the pension as prescribed or not receive anything.

"It is sad for me that an official or public organization dealing with social security should act in such a brutal way –  the law in my view. No law has been changed, and then one day, completely out of the blue, they think, 'Let's make it so that we no longer count [time spent on] parental leave as contributing toward the pension for years of service.' How can that be?" Indrek said.

According to Indrek's lawyer Robert Suir, the SKA's interpretation is misguided.

Suir said that officials cannot apply an interpretation, which is not clearly stated in the law, in a way that restricts a person's rights.

"The Social Insurance Board's (SKA) premise that parental leave interrupts a rescue workers connections to their job is an unworkable and misguided interpretation. While a rescue worker may have a family obligation to be at home with their children, under the law, they still have a duty to the state as a rescuer during their period of parental leave and could be called back to perform that duty in case of an emergency," Suir explained.

Indrek said that if parental leave is no longer taken into account when calculating years of service, then other periods of sustained absence from work should not be counted either. "If people are simply on leave or on sick leave, for example. People are not doing dangerous work during the period when they are on long-term sick leave. Or, if someone is on a secondment to do training somewhere, or on study leave. There are so many variants, in which people are not directly involved in dangerous work."

According to Suir, the Superannuated Pensions Act does not mention parental leave at all. The Administrative Court also found that the law does not provide for any exceptions concerning parental leave.

"As [taking] parental leave does not terminate an employment relationship, either in the civil service or in an employment contract. There is a suspension of the employment relationship, however, with a continuation of service. Therefore, time spent on parental leave must be counted towards the length of service when determining pension entitlements for years of service," Suir said.

Läänemets: This is contrary to ambitions of the state

A large proportion of those receiving a pensions for years of service, including police officers, rescue workers and prison officers, are employed by the Estonian Ministry of the Interior.

At a press conference on Thursday, Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) also implied that, without there having been any changes to the law, the SKA has begun interpreting the Superannuated Pensions Act in a way that means some people would have to work significantly more in order to receive their pensions.

"For a reason that is incomprehensible to me, the Social Security Board says that they are waiting for a ruling from the Supreme Court. In my opinion, what is being done to these people is unfair. It is diametrically opposed to the aspirations of the Estonian state," Läänemets said. "We want every person who has a child to be valued equally. They are just as important as having a child is. In my opinion, this interpretation sends out the message that [if you are working] in these jobs, don't have children."

According to Läänemets, both the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Social Affairs are now working to resolve the situation.

Equal treatment laws

Estonia's Equal Treatment Commissioner Christian Veske suggested that the Social Security Board's new approach to the issue may constitute a breach of equal treatment laws. However, he also stressed that he was unable to say for sure as he did not know all the facts related to the case.

"What can be said with certainty is that under the Gender Equality Act it is prohibited to treat people less favorably due to them performing family obligations. This is regardless of whether this less favorable treatment is caused by an interpretation of the law in practice or as the result of an implicitly discriminatory legal regulation. Under the principle of equal treatment, it is important that the pension system is fair and non-discriminatory for all citizens," Veske said.

According to Veske, the question of whether this means SKA's actions are contrary to the law needs to be analyzed in more depth, with the Supreme Court's ruling able to provide further clarification.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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