Phoenix fiasco flying under election radar

Around 228,000 government employees — more than half of the federal public service — continue to have problems with the Phoenix pay system. But the main federal parties don't seem to want to talk about it.

No annoucements made by federal leaders about the problem-plagued pay system

To this day, around 228,000 government employees — more than half of the federal public service — continue to have problems with the Phoenix pay system. But the main federal parties don't seem to want to talk about it. (Antoine Trépanier/Radio-Canada)

The failures of the Phoenix pay system have dominated the news at various points over the past four years, but the federal leadership candidates don't appear eager to talk about them this election.

The pay system has been mentioned a handful of times by New Democratic Party candidates in Ottawa, who have brought up the fact thousands of federal public servants have been waiting eons for a plan to solve their pay problems.

Yet, the party's leader, Jagmeet Singh, has been missing from the discussion — as have all other major party leaders, none of whom have made any announcements about Phoenix.

Ottawa Centre NDP candidate Emilie Taman has pointed out that in nine debates in her riding, no questions have been asked about Phoenix. Yet approximately 228,000 employees, more than half of all federal civil servants, still have pay problems to this day.

Some people have taken to social media to say Phoenix is one of their top election issues, asking why party leaders aren't talking about it.

Another Twitter user compared Phoenix to Ottawa's problem-plagued $2.1-billion light rail line.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents about 140,000 of those public servants, has said in recent months it wants to play an active role in this election campaign.

"We always talk about Phoenix. We raise the issue in all the spheres of communication that exist in Canada, but you will understand that we are not being listened to," PSAC vice-president Magali Picard said in a French-language interview.

Magali Picard, national executive vice-president of PSAC, said she's disappointed that the Phoenix pay system isn't being discussed more in the election campaign. (CBC)

'Really discouraging'

Ruby Couture has been working at Place du Portage in Gatineau for almost 10 years, and considers joining the public service a real accomplishment.

But when Phoenix was launched, she encountered problems immediately. At the beginning, Couture received incomplete pay. Then the government gave her too much money.

Four years later, she owes her employer $30,000.

Couture said it's hard to believe political parties aren't discussing Phoenix more, especially since calculations have shown it will cost close to $3 billion to stabilize the system before replacing it.

"It's really, really discouraging, and I have lost confidence in my employer," she said in French.

"I do not want to go to work in the private sector, but at the same time, I want to because I am really losing confidence."

Federal government workers across the country have dealt with Phoenix pay problems since early 2016. (Public Service Alliance of Canada, BC Region)

Before the election, Justin Trudeau's Liberal government announced its intention to close the book on Phoenix and introduce a brand new payroll and human resources system for the public service.

This summer, the federal government made a deal with 15 public service unions that would allow 146,000 public servants to be compensated for problems caused by Phoenix. That agreement does not include the PSAC, which alone has about 140,000 members across the country.

The government also hired 300 additional compensation advisors to increase the capacity of the pay centre. As of April 2018, some 1,500 employees were working on pay issues.

Sahir Khan, executive vice-president of the University of Ottawa's Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, says he believes political parties won't want to discuss a hot issue like the Phoenix pay system. (CBC)

Party promises

The Liberal party mentions Phoenix once in its platform, vowing to entirely eliminate "the backlog of outstanding pay issues for public servants" so that those employees "can focus on their work and not on resolving long-standing payroll problems."

On Oct. 8, Ottawa NDP candidates promised they would not only replace the pay system but also hire even more compensation advisers and provide fair compensation for affected employees.

There was no mention of Phoenix in the Green Party of Canada's platform. The Conservative Party's platform released on Friday made no mention of Phoenix. 

Talking about Phoenix doesn't provide federal parties with any real benefit, said Sahir Khan, executive vice-president of the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa.

If you're a voter, how do you exercise your anger on the issue?- Sahir Khan

"For the Conservatives and the Liberals, they have ownership over it. And for the NDP, the Bloc and the Greens, without a solution to it ... I don't know how you go after it," he said.

When that reticence is coupled with the perception Phoenix is a local issue, the pay system becomes the elephant in the room no party wants to acknowledge, said Khan. 

That means those who feel burned by Phoenix have no obvious party to reward or punish at the ballot box. 

"If you're a voter, how do you exercise your anger on the issue? Where would you put your vote?" Khan said. "I don't think that's clear."

With files from Antoine Trépanier and Laura Glowacki


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