HOW LONG BEFORE THE FABLED PHOENIX RISES OUT OF THE ASHES? Thousands of federal government workers ask that question every day as they continue to suffer the tortures of the broken Phoenix pay system, three years after it was activated.
Phoenix began as he brainchild of the Harper government. It was activated in early 2016 by the current Liberal government. It never worked. Salary overpayments, underpayments, or no payments soon became all but the norm. The range and depth of personal consequences for thousands of workers staggers the imagination.
Every attempt to fix Phoenix has failed. At least one in every two federal workers has now had a problem because of the deeply flawed pay program. Worse, there is no final fix in sight.
Auditor general Michael Ferguson blamed the Phoenix debacle on a culture within government of bureaucrats avoiding reporting failures to their supervisors.
Fixing these errors has cost $1.1 billion dollars so far. It is expected that it will take at least twice that amount to patch it up before a new system to replace Phoenix is fully in place. That’s expected to be at least two years from now.
‘If it ain’t broke...’
The Phoenix system took the jobs of 650 public service workers: 1,200 compensation advisors were replaced with 550 workers in a new pay centre in Miramichi, New Brunswick.
Each of the new workers were specialists in different types of pay issues. It was a needless complication of a straight forward operation that was working well.
It meant that, instead of one person handling a pay file, several might be involved. If someone had a problem with retroactive pay, shift premium and annual leave, for example, it would now take three different specialists and three complaints to put things right.
To handle the increasing flood of complaints, the government had to triple the number of workers in Miramichi and in the satellite offices that had to be set up across the country. Things are getting better, it claims.
That’s cold comfort for Tracy Gour, who works for Service Canada in Sudbury. A year ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was determined to keep working, pushing through her chemotherapy, fearing what might happen to her pay if she were to take leave. Those fears proved to be entirely justified.
In March 2018, she “just about collapsed,” and had to take time off. Her sick leave ran out by the end of that month, but her pay continued to be directly deposited into her account until May.
That meant an overpayment of six weeks, while, at the same time, her short-term disability payments, intended to follow the exhaustion of sick leave, were fouled up as well. She only began to receive them in September, forcing her to use some of her overpayment over the summer just to live.
Tracy will be returning to work in February. “I am utterly terrified about my pay,” says Tracy. “I could lose my house, be unable to pay for food, transportation or medicine. The stress is staggering.”
From bad to worse
The employer often added to the stress: the government forced the workers who received unwanted overpayments to reimburse the gross amount of the overpayment which included CPP payments, income tax deductions, etc...)—significantly more than the amount they received.
Not only was this a financial burden on thousands of workers, it also resulted in years of tax return problems for them.
In January the federal government proposed tax legislation to fix the problem.
“We would have preferred to have this legislation tabled years ago,” said PSAC president Chris Aylward, “but we’re pleased that it will be retroactive to 2016, the year the Phoenix crisis began. The government must now move as quickly as possible to implement the legislation.”
Thoughts of suicide
Dave Lanthier, is a long-time union activist with the Union of Taxation Employees, a component of the PSAC. Over the course of his union activities, Dave took a lot of union leave. In 2017, he noticed that money was being deducted from his paycheck.
Dave assumed the deductions were to compensate for his union leave. He was right about that. What he was wrong about was that it was for time taken off that year.
In fact, it was for the previous year, and in September, 2017, Phoenix caught up with itself and began taking as much as 50% of his paycheque without warning.
The sudden large clawbacks left Dave with so little money that he and his partner were evicted from their house for non-payment of rent. They couch-surfed for two months before they finally found another place to live. Bills, such as car payments, came due. There was no money for Christmas presents. Lanthier lost his credit. And he was told there could be six months of this.
At that point he seriously considered suicide. “I was standing on a snowbank waiting for the bus, thinking of throwing myself in front of it. Then I thought of my daughter and reconsidered.” Only in early 2018 did Human Resources finally step up, and a sensible repayment plan was put in place.
‘Too afraid of Phoenix’
Carolyn Labelle-Rousseau, who works in Gatineau, Quebec, noticed she was being underpaid in 2016, and acting pay wasn’t being compensated.
Phoenix tried a workaround—generate a fake overpayment to put her acting pay in her hands. But the higher figure was never corrected, and appeared as her actual salary on her T-4, despite her not being actually overpaid at all.
There were dire consequences. Labelle-Rousseau has a special needs child, and had been receiving a special allowance of $1200/month. The Canada Revenue Agency informed her that her income was now too high for that, and cut it back to between $200 and $300 a month. It also claimed that she owed back taxes for 2017.
All of this remains unresolved. She has no idea where to turn. She has had to take stress leave because of the confusion. She has refused a promotion—three levels higher than her current job—and said no to acting assignments as well, because “I’m too afraid of Phoenix.”
Overtime pay tagged as overpayment
Another employee, unwilling to give her name, has worked 19 years in government, and is a single parent. In 2015, she worked considerable overtime, plus earning acting pay. This went uncompensated.
Some has since been paid out, after she filed a grievance, but she can’t obtain a breakdown from her department or from Miramichi—instead, they claimed she had been overpaid.
On three occasions 100% of her paycheque was clawed back, and once she received only $300. Considerable money owed her is still outstanding. And now she believes she is being denied acting assignments, formerly freely offered to her as a senior employee, because of the protests she has made.
The damage and misery Phoenix has done to these workers is the reality for thousands upon thousands of workers in the federal public service. Real harm and suffering, enddured week by week, month by month, year by year by real people. Promised fix by promised fix has failed to materialize.
All of this continues to happen because an employer decided to fix a pay system that wasn’t broken—not to make things better for the workers, but to make things better for the employer. It is an old, old story. It is not one workers should ever have to endure—certainly not when the employer is their own government.
Can the government—will the government—ever be able to completely fix it? Federal government workers can only hope so. In the meantime, their daily reality is to simply grin and bear it.
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