Confusion reigns at pay centre as Phoenix deadline looms

Federal government workers have until Friday to report overpayments received under the Phoenix system, or risk being forced to repay much higher gross amounts. But some who owe money are being told they don't.

Government workers have until Friday to declare overpayments, or risk owing more

Former federal government scientist Jerome Marty continued to be paid after leaving his job in 2016. He estimates he owes $25,000, but an agent at the government pay centre told him this week he owes nothing. (CBC)

Environmental scientist Jerome Marty left his term position with the federal public service in 2016 to take another job in the capital, but the government paycheques kept coming well into 2017.

Yet despite the pile of money sitting in his bank account, Marty is being told he doesn't owe a dime — a discrepancy that under other circumstances might be deemed a stroke of good luck, but that under the growing uncertainty wrought by the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system merely adds another layer of worry.

Talking to various people who are really trying to help, it seems the tools are not there.- Jerome Marty, former public servant

Marty and thousands of other current and former government employees have until Friday to declare any overpayments to the federal pay centre, either by phone or through an online form.

Failing to meet the looming deadline could mean they'll eventually have to repay the gross amount recorded on their pay stubs rather than the net amount they received after deductions — a difference that for some could amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

According to the government, workers "must do this even if you have previously identified to your manager or department that you have received an overpayment."

But in the rush to register the overpayments, pay centre phone lines have been jammed.

'I cannot walk away'

After trying to contact the call centre more times than he can count, Marty was finally able to get through earlier this week to declare his overpayment.

He was hoping to make things right by paying back the government, sorting out his pension contributions, retrieving back pay — and finally closing the door on his relationship with his former employer and its Phoenix payroll system.

But it turns out Phoenix isn't done with him just yet.

"The person looked into my file and revealed to me that I didn't have any amounts due to the government," Marty said. "As far as I'm concerned that's absolutely incorrect."

According to Marty's calculations and those of his former department, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, he was overpaid about $25,000.

"I cannot walk away. After spending so much time and energy, I will never walk away, because I find it's part of being a good citizen and being honest."

Union seeking exemption

Complicating Marty's situation is the fact that he was overpaid in both 2016 and 2017, straddling two tax years.

"There is also the implication in terms of pension, RSP, my own pension plan," Marty said.

Unions are urging their members to register overpayments and make records of their contact with the call centre.
As of June 2017 some 59,000 federal employees had received overpayments, the government said. They have until Friday to declare the amounts they owe. (Julie Ireton, CBC )

Meanwhile the Public Service Alliance of Canada continues to lobby for an exemption for government workers being told to repay gross amounts.

According to PSAC's website the union "will continue to push for a full exemption from repaying the gross pay for all employees who received an overpayment due to Phoenix."

Marty believes the agents at the pay centre tasked with helping people like him are not properly equipped to do their jobs because they don't have access to all the files and information they need to process and correct errors.

"Talking to various people who are really trying to help, it seems the tools are not there," he said.

In November the Auditor General of Canada reported that as of June 30, 2017, the amount the government owed to federal workers had reached $228 million, while the amount of overpayments totalled $295 million and affected 59,000 workers.

When asked this week, the department of Public Services and Procurement Canada said it did not have any updated numbers when it comes to overpayments owed.

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