PHOENIX FALLING

Phoenix pay problems force dozens of Canadian students to seek tuition help

Carleton University's Greg Owens is one of at least 80 students across Canada who have told their university's administration that they couldn't afford to pay school fees on time after gaining work placements with the federal government.

Universities giving students extensions, forwarding cases to government

Carleton University student Greg Owens completed three co-op contract positions with the federal government between August 2015 and September 2016. He's one of approximately 80 students across Canada who've received help from their universities to pay their tuition — all because of the Phoenix pay system. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

A Carleton university student says his year-long Phoenix payroll problems have been so financially crippling that he's had to take up a second job, borrow thousands of dollars from his parents, and delay paying his tuition.

Greg Owens is one of at least 80 students across Canada who have told their university's administration that they couldn't afford to pay school fees on time after gaining work placements with the federal government, CBC News has learned.

Owens says he plans to never work for the federal government again.

It's scary. I'm a student ... My line of credit only goes so far.- Greg Owens, fourth-year student at Carleton University 

"It's scary," he said. "I'm a student ... I don't have big savings accounts. I don't have an RESP. My line of credit only goes so far."

Since Phoenix rolled out, tens of thousands of government workers and students have been overpaid or underpaid, including every single summer student who worked at Parks Canada. Co-op and summer students in other government departments have also experienced issues with their wages.

Owens, a fourth-year neuroscience and mental health major,  completed his co-op at Health Canada six months ago. He said he continues to get notices stating that he owes the government hundreds of dollars. 

"It's disheartening," Owens said. "The unfortunate reality is I'm definitely not in a place that I can just write cheques to pay them back..."

Universities waive penalties

CBC News reached out some of Canada's largest universities to find out how many had made exceptions for students suffering from Phoenix-related financial hardships.

At Carleton, more than 30 students have been given tuition payment extensions, a university spokesperson said. Owens was able to pay one semester late without incurring any extra interest or penalties. 

The University of Ottawa said 40 of its students have come forward for help. The university said it had "reached an agreement" with the office of Marie Lemay, the deputy minister in charge of Phoenix, and passed on their students' cases to a government counsellor to help resolve them.

Four co-op art students at the University of British Columbia, meanwhile, have received emergency funding or were allowed to defer their tuition. The University of Waterloo also confirmed that a handful of their students had also been affected by Phoenix pay issues.

Bilan Arte, the chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, says she's heard of students dropping out of school because they couldn't afford tuition because of Phoenix pay problems. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

But more is at stake than just tuition. 

If students' T4 tax forms are not correct, it could hurt their ability to get loans and grants, said Bilan Arte, the chairperson for the Canadian Federation of Students.

"It has huge ripple effects," Arte said. "If they've been overpaid, for example, it might really hurt their chances to apply for certain programs and scholarships." 

"I think the bigger problem here is that students are still having to deal with the consequences of a mistake that the federal government made," she added. 

Students should see improvements

At a press conference on Wednesday, Lemay said that students' pay issues should already be improving.  

Marie Lemay, deputy minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada, gave an update on the Phoenix pay system Wednesday morning. (CBC News)

"We've made adjustments," Lemay said "We've changed the process ... students should be paid at the right rate as of January."

The Phoenix system used to mistakenly input students at the lowest possible pay level, said Lemay, and a compensation advisor would have to adjust their salaries based on their offer letter.

That was all done through the pay centre, which is backed up with thousands of unprocessed cases — about three months' worth of work. 

Lemay said Wednesday that's no longer how it's done, and if students do still experience pay issues, individual departments are supposed to notify Public Services and Procurement Canada so they can deal with it.

As for Owens, he said his roommate is on co-op with the federal government and is still getting underpaid $500 per paycheque.

He said he's telling other students that if they decide to do a work placement for the federal government, they should save up their money first. 

"At this point, I would not work for the federal government of Canada," Owens said. "Especially while it's under the Phoenix pay system."

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Ashley Burke is a video journalist at CBC News Ottawa who files for multiple platforms. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca