An Ottawa public servant said she is drowning in debt and owed tens of thousands of dollars because of problems with the Phoenix pay system that's ruined her maternity leave.

Mary O'Donnell said the financial nightmare stole a precious year with her two children, a year that was supposed to be filled with joy and memories. Instead, the past 11 months have been consumed by stress and anxiety, as she has burned countless hours on the phone trying to have her pay issues fixed, she said.

'I'm not the parent I want to be because I don't sleep at night.' - Mary O'Donnell, public servant

"There is this cloud of stress that won't go away," O'Donnell told CBC News.

"There's this gnawing feeling every day, every moment I'm with my kids, because we are financially [strapped]. I'm not the parent I want to be because I don't sleep at night."

Since federal workers had their files moved to a consolidated pay system called Phoenix last year, tens of thousands of workers, retirees and employees on leave have reported problems with their pay, with some being overpaid, some paid too little and some not at all.

Union leaders say that across the country, workers on parental leave are reporting widespread pay issues at a time in their lives when they are vulnerable and should be spending time with their newborns.

On Wednesday, government officials assured workers awaiting parental payments that the federal government is finally approaching a "steady state" in processing their claims by the end of March.

'Humiliated' to have to borrow from family

But O'Donnell said she can't wait any longer and is "humiliated" that, at 37, she's had to borrow thousands of dollars from her retired parents and her sisters.

Mary O'Donnell says Phoenix pay problems have stolen time away from her kids she can't get back0:28

She's racked up debt on credit and said as of next month her family won't be able to afford their bills. This despite major cutbacks, including selling her family's home and renting instead.

"It's incredibly frustrating," said O'Donnell. "Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau claims to be a feminist and I believe that may be the case … but this is affecting women."

"How can we provide for our children when we're not getting paid?"

'It is a very stressful situation'

The deputy minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, Marie Lemay, said Wednesday she knows "it is a very stressful situation" for those experiencing pay problems on parental leave and that's why the department is prioritizing these cases above all else.

Right now, the pay centre is in the middle of fixing all parental leave transactions that are outside of its 20-day service standards at the pay centre, Lemay said.

Federal Pay 20160907

Deputy Minister of PSPC Marie Lemay says the government is handling parental and disability leave cases ahead of other pay issues. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

She expects that parents with outstanding problems will receive their top-up pay on March 22, and new parental leave cases will be processed after that.

"Which means these people will be contacted, we'll make arrangement with them and we'd be able to regularize their situation," said Lemay. "That is good news, I realize that is in the context of a lot of wait and a lot of stress. In that sense, I'm sorry that these people had to live that ..."

But O'Donnell fears her case is considered "fixed" because she has received some pay. However, she said her issues are far from over.

Financial nightmare

O'Donnell's pay problems started almost a year ago in April when her second child was born. The government's pay centre didn't process her maternity leave and forward her record of employment to Service Canada, she said, making her ineligible for employment insurance.

Despite countless calls reporting the issue, O'Donnell didn't receive her EI or the government maternity leave top-up, and instead continued to receive paycheques for seven months even though she wasn't at work, though she said the amounts were inconsistent and not the full amount of her regular pay. 

She's the primary income earner and without EI, she used that money to live on.

Then, without any warning, her paycheques stopped entirely. She didn't have any income coming in for three months.

"At Christmas time we had no money," said O'Donnell. "If it weren't for family and friends and their generosity there would have been nothing for the children."

Government claws back $20K

It wasn't until February, almost a year later, that a compensation adviser able to access her file finally called her back.

'They just took it. I know it wasn't theft, but it felt like theft. I felt totally violated by that.' - O'Donnell, after the federal government clawed back close to $20,000 in overpayments

Through tears she walked him through her case and he assured her the problems would be solved.

O'Donnell said she was expecting a $30,000 cheque from her employer for her missing maternity leave top up, but then received a notice she owed almost $20,000 in what the government said were overpayments.

She submitted a form opting to pay back the money in increments over her paycheques once she received her correct pay. Instead, the government clawed it back in one lump sum without her permission. She was left with $5,412 to pay her mounting bills. 

"I feel totally disrespected," O'Donnell said. "That was money that I was owed over the course of the last 10 months. I didn't even get to see it. They just took it. I know it wasn't theft, but it felt like theft. I felt totally violated by that."

The Public Service Alliance Of Canada said the government made assurances it would never claw back money this way.

"It should not be happening," said Larry Rousseau, the union's regional executive vice-president for the National Capital Region. "Unless their pay situation has been resolved and … they are back on track getting regular paycheques and this should be proven over a period of several pays."

Employment insurance mess

O'Donnell said her employment insurance still hasn't been processed and Service Canada told her she may never see the money she's owed. 

The department didn't receive her proper paperwork from the pay centre until February, or 10 months after it began. O'Donnell said Service Canada told her she may only be eligible for two months of EI, rather than a year. She said she plans to appeal if that is Service Canada's final assessment.

"I feel totally disrespected," said O'Donnell. "I have exhausted all options. I've done everything I can to get things moving and here I am talking to the CBC."

O'Donnell is supposed to return to work after Easter but doesn't know how she'll afford it. 

"I don't know how I'll pay for daycare," she said.

Have a story to tell? Email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca