As federal Phoenix payroll fiasco hits 2-year mark, families continue to bear brunt of it

Two years after the federal government launched Phoenix, public servants and their families across the country continue to suffer under the problem-plagued pay system, with no fix in sight.

Problem-plagued, IBM-customized pay system remains 'embarrassing,' apologetic minister admits

Public servants from coast to coast have suffered under the dysfunctional Phoenix payroll system, and so have their families. (CBC)

Two years after the federal government launched Phoenix, public servants and their families across the country continue to suffer under the problem-plagued payroll system, with no fix in sight.

Tens of thousands of workers have been burned by Phoenix since the IBM-customized system went live on Feb. 24, 2016. But that growing list of victims doesn't capture the countless spouses and dependents who have also had to bear the financial — and often emotional — burden.

Steve Baker doesn't work for the government and never has. His wife does, and Baker wants the people in charge to know the toll Phoenix is taking on her, on him, and on their children.

Steven Baker has had to work overtime at his Edmonton automotive shop to make up for the shortfall in his wife's pay. (Submitted )

The Edmonton automotive shop manager has been forced to work 12- to 14-hour days, six days a week while his wife went unpaid through her maternity leave due to another Phoenix foul-up.

Just as his wife's maternity leave was coming to an end, she received a large lump-sum payment. That will affect their taxes for both 2016 and 2017, and combined with his forced overtime, leaves the couple looking at a huge bill this spring.

Baker said he and his wife can't even talk about Phoenix anymore because it always leads to an argument.

"My wife was in tears a lot of times, and I was getting angry and frustrated because we were watching our bank account get really small," Baker said. "I'm losing time with my family, time with my wife. It becomes a battle."

Baker said he's lost faith in the government's determination to fix the Phoenix problem, and he wonders whether anyone will ever be held accountable for the fiasco.

Tammy Kuempel, a federal government term employee in Winnipeg, said she couldn't afford to pay for her mom's funeral due to her Phoenix pay troubles. (Submitted)

Can't afford funeral

But that's exactly what people like Tammy Kuempel, a term employee in Winnipeg, have been forced to do: be accountable.

After her mother died recently, Kuempel said she didn't have the money to pay for a funeral, in part because of Phoenix.

My mom died and I can't bury her. I can't afford a funeral.- Tammy Kuempel

After she was accidentally overpaid, Kuempel said someone at the federal government pay centre decided to claw back her wages without any warning or explanation.

"All I received for one paycheque was $78. Cheques were bouncing, my mortgage bounced," Kuempel recalled. "My mom died and I can't bury her. I can't afford a funeral. My mom deserves better. I deserve better than that.

"Everyone talks about how much the Phoenix system is costing, but there's a human cost."

The lack of proper, efficient communications, along with proper calculations and accurate reconciliation is another common complaint from those affected by Phoenix.

Salma Tmoulik is about to go on her second maternity leave, but she's still waiting for pay from her first mat leave in 2016. 0:32

Salma Tmoulik hopes that by the time she's ready to give birth to her second baby this spring, Phoenix will have sorted out her maternity leave pay for her first child, born back in 2016.

Tmoulik, a programs inquiry assistant at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada in Ottawa, is still owed about $12,000 from her last mat leave.

She worries the same thing will happen again.

"We should be enjoying our kids, not stressing about this," Tmoulik said. "You have to really budget and decide if you want to put your kids in certain activities or programs. If you're not getting your pay, you can't afford it."

Ongoing problems 'embarrassing,' minister says

Public Services and Procurement Canada Minister Carla Qualtrough said her department empathizes with what workers and their families are going through.

She said she's received "hundreds of thousands of emails" from Canadians telling her how they've been affected by Phoenix.

"It's really important to me to connect to the human side of this, because it really motivates me personally to solve it," Qualtrough said in an interview with CBC News.

"Not getting paid is hardship by definition. You shouldn't have to come to me and say, 'I didn't pay this bill, I didn't make a mortgage payment.' ... That's a real vulnerability to have to come and say that to your manager, to your coworker, to your minister."

But as embarrassing as that may be for workers, Qualtrough wants them to know her government is embarrassed, too.

"It's embarrassing that we're still there, and we are," Qualtrough said.

"The challenge again is, things are compounding each other. You get an overpayment, but at the same time you're not paid for something else, or something else is late, and reconciling those transactions is an extremely difficult technological process."
Carla Qualtrough, minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, the department in charge of Phoenix, calls the ongoing problems 'embarrassing.' (CBC)

Impact on hiring, retention

The minister acknowledges Phoenix is "absolutely" having an impact on public service hiring and retention. She said employees aren't striving for promotions, and are discouraging others from joining their ranks.

"They aren't telling their kids, 'This is a great place to work, you too should aspire to work in the public service,'" Qualtrough said. "We are asking people to make mega-leaps of faith here, when we've not proven we deserve that leap of faith."

Qualtrough said she's concerned about the future consequences on the public service 10 or 15 years down the road.

The most recent tally shows the number of transactions the pay centre was trying to resolve in January at 384,000. The target is zero.

"All I can do again is apologize that we've put people in this situation," Qualtrough said.

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is with CBC Ottawa. She’s a critical thinker who has produced hundreds of original pieces of impact journalism. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca