Phoenix leaves manager powerless to help employee with son battling cancer

A Ottawa-based manager with the Canada's public service is frustrated that issues with the Phoenix payroll system mean he can't formally approve one of his employees to take leave as her teenage son undergoes chemotherapy for Stage 4 cancer.

'It's extremely stressful,' says Ottawa mom who's off work, but worries about having to pay back salary

'I'm really worried right now that I'm not being able to manage my staff,' says Nathan Nash, an Ottawa manager with Public Services and Procurement Canada, referring to the Phoenix payroll fiasco. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)


  • Five hours after this story was published, Nash was told his file was being transferred.
  • Nash met with the Deputy Minister of his department at 1:45 p.m. Friday.
  • Dickenson's file was transferred Friday afternoon and she will be granted leave by Monday.

A manager in Ottawa with Canada's public service is frustrated that after six months, he still cannot do half his job on a given day because of the Phoenix payroll fiasco.

Nathan Nash, who's with Public Services and Procurement Canada, says the worst part is, despite all his efforts, he can't formally approve one of his employees, Kalisa Dickenson, to take leave as her teenage son undergoes chemotherapy for Stage 4 cancer. Dickenson stopped working in August, but hasn't formally received the time off, potentially setting her up for problems down the road.

On a given day, I cannot do up to 50 per cent of my job.- Nathan Nash, manager with Public Services and Procurement Canada 

"I'm really worried right now that I'm not being able to manage my staff," said Nash. "It's having a huge impact on what I can do at the job and obviously what the taxpayers are paying me to do."

Nash blames the backlog of Phoenix cases for tying up workers at the government's Pay Centre in Miramichi, N.B.

Since he started a new job in February, he says, pay advisers still haven't transferred his human resources files over to his new department.

Without those files, Nash says, he can't access the IT tools on his computer to see the files of his 14 employees to evaluate their performances, and in the case of Dickenson, officially grant her leave.

Kalisa Dickenson, had to take a leave while her teenage son undergoes chemotherapy for Stage 4 cancer. 0:14

Dickenson, a business officer who has been working with the federal government for about six years,​ expects to be off the job for six months as 14-year-old Tanner undergoes chemotherapy for advanced Lymphoblastic lymphoma.

She's still receiving a full salary because her leave hasn't been processed, so is worried about spending that money because eventually she will have to pay it back. Dickenson also can't apply for employment insurance because she hasn't officially been granted leave by her manager, so doesn't have a record of employment.

To make matters worse, no one else can access Dickenson's pay files, because her records are also stuck in limbo at her last department. She landed her new job in June, two months before her son found a lump on his pelvis and she had to stop showing up to work to take him to the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario for treatment.

"I just want my son to be OK," said Dickenson. "And I know he's going to be. I'm going to make sure he is."

'It's going to be such a disaster'

But she said the payroll issues aren't helping.

"It's extremely stressful and it does keep me up at night," said Dickenson. "It's going to be such a disaster. The problem is they are going to be coming after me later to claw back all sorts of money that I'm not sure I'm going to have. I know that the way the federal government comes back for things is not always a pretty scene."

It's extremely stressful and it does keep me up at night.- Kalisa   Dickenson , public servant 

Nash, acting as Dickenson's manager, contacted the Phoenix call centre in Toronto for her to handle both of their cases.

But Nash says an employee from the call centre reading a script told him there was nothing that could be done because they are considered "priority 3 cases" and would not be handled at the satellite centre. A priority case is one where people are receiving regular pay but struggling with other issues.

"They were not opening any new cases," says Nash. "I was disappointed. But I was more disappointed for the employee. She's taking care of her sick child. She doesn't need to be spending her time on the phone spending time on this elusive file that exists but nobody can access it."
Manager wants to help worker with sick son 0:31

Satellite centres dealing with backlog from June

The government revealed on Wednesday it could cost up to $50 million to fix Phoenix — almost double the original estimate. That does not include productivity losses for federal employees and managers who are having trouble doing their jobs. 

Marie Lemay, deputy minister in charge of Phoenix, explained in an update earlier this week that all the priority 3 cases that come in after June aren't considered part of the 82,000 backlog cases that are being handled by new satellite pay centres.

Instead, they are normal files that will be processed through Miramichi.

Tanner Stevenson, 14, is undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoblastic lymphoma. (Submitted Photo)
That means Nash needs to call the Miramichi pay centre to open up a file for both himself and Dickenson. But he says the only number listed online is for the central call centre in Toronto.

"As a manager who is proud of my employees… it's really frustrating to have to go back and say, 'I'm sorry, I'm out of options, there's nothing else I can do for you,'" says Nash.

As for Dickenson, a family friend set up a crowdfunding site to help pay for the 20 per cent of Tanner's medication her benefits don't cover and added expenses to travel to hospital for treatment.

"You can't predict cancer, let alone in your child," she says.

"This is just another stressor I don't need on top of everything else."

About the Author

Ashley Burke


Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at