A federal government employee says she spent three months fearing she would lose her home after missing a $750 payment as a result of a massive government mess-up.
Unable to meet her financial obligations, she says she missed a payment on a Bank of Montreal credit line linked to her mortgage, which, combined with previous issues, led to the threat of foreclosure.
"You have the government apologizing for an error and you still have the banks saying, 'No, sorry, we don't care that you're facing these hardships. We just want our money,'" her daughter, Jimena Cordova, told Go Public.
While the Phoenix pay problems brought things to a head, Jacqueline Cordova says her problems with the bank started three years ago.
When her husband died from a heart attack in 2014, the mortgage was under his name and there was a claim on the estate from a third party, leading to questions around property ownership.
BMO says those "discrepancies" were the main problem, telling Cordova in a June 1 letter, "the issue was never that you fell behind or missed payments."
BMO says it tried to work with Cordova over the years to resolve the issues with her late husband's estate — and with no resolution by the time her Phoenix pay problems started, it had no choice but to foreclose.
That came as a surprise to Cordova, who says the bank gave her no indication that there was a serious issue with her accounts until her government pay problems began.
The federal government rolled out the Phoenix pay system in February 2016, and problems paying its more than 300,000 employees started soon after. Some were underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all.
In Cordova's case, she failed to receive her record of employment, which she needed to collect sick pay after undergoing eye surgery while on leave from her job with the Defence Department at Canadian Forces Base Edmonton.
"It all seems to have a domino effect … the government walking away doing nothing and the bank proceeding with business as usual. There needs to be some give and take," she says.
For months, her 27-year-old daughter supported the pair, taking a leave from her post-secondary studies so she could work three jobs to pay the bills.
"We've cut out a lot of things out of our budget," Jimena Cordova says. "We've cancelled cable, we've cancelled our home [phone] line, we're using one car between the two of us or busing, and we stopped eating meat.
"We already cut so much out, but it's still not enough to keep us afloat."
Last November, after she missed the $750 payment, BMO filed a court claim and demanded Cordova pay out the full amount remaining on the mortgage: $272,413.
A few weeks later, it served Cordova with foreclosure documents.
Cordova asked the Treasury Board of Canada for help. It sent a formal letter to the bank in mid-December, explaining that the woman's financial situation was the government's fault and asking "for flexibility and understanding" in BMO's dealings with her.
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That same month, Cordova was finally issued her record of employment, applied for sick leave benefits, and caught up on her missed bank payment. She hoped the government letter would convince BMO to lift the foreclosure, giving her a chance to secure financing elsewhere.
"With a foreclosure hanging over our heads, no bank would touch us," her daughter says.
They were shocked when on Dec. 21, she received a notice from BMO that it still planned to foreclose on the house.
In February, with less than a week before the foreclosure date, the Cordovas contacted Go Public.
After Go Public's inquiries, the bank notified Cordova it would reverse its decision to foreclose and agreed to refinance her.
"From July 2014 through February 2017, we stood ready to work with Ms. Cordova and moved quickly to reach a positive outcome when a number of discrepancies surrounding the status of the estate were finally clarified in February," BMO spokesperson Ralph Marranca wrote in an email.
The vice-president of the union that represents government workers says he's disappointed it took media attention to get BMO to change its mind.
"From all corners of this country, I believe everyone has been made aware that there have been issues with pay for federal public-sector workers," says Chris Aylward, of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, who is also part of a committee dealing with Phoenix pay problems.
"It's very unfortunate that this particular institution wasn't a little more understanding," he says. "[BMO] should have done a little bit more exploration as to exactly why this individual wasn't able to make her mortgage payments."
The bank says it is "pleased that we could help Ms. Cordova."
CBC News recently reported that the cost to fix the troubled Phoenix pay system is now more than the original amount spent to implement it.
Steve MacKinnon, parliamentary secretary to the Public Services minister, recently announced a $142-million investment to hire more people to help fix the ongoing issues. With that additional money, the cost to fix Phoenix has risen to about $402 million — more than the $309.5 million it cost to initially implement.
Meanwhile, Canada's public servants are paying out-of-pocket for late charges and penalties incurred when they're unable to pay their bills due to pay problems. They then apply to the government to have their claims reimbursed.
According to the Treasury Board, as of May 12, the federal government has processed 755 reimbursement claims for those out-of-pocket expenses, totalling nearly $62,500.
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With files from Rachel Ward