Ottawa·Phoenix Falling

Public servants turning to Privacy Act to access personal Phoenix files

A growing number of public servants desperate to have their Phoenix pay problems fixed are trying to access their personal files through privacy legislation for answers.

'It's another desperate measure for people to try to manage their own pay,' says union president

An October rally was one way public servants loudly voiced complaints. Now, some are quietly filing Privacy Act requests instead for answers to pay problems. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

A growing number of public servants desperate to have their Phoenix pay problems fixed are trying to access their personal files through privacy legislation for answers — but for some it's turning out to be another frustrating dead end.

According to Public Services and Procurement Canada, nearly 150 employees have filed requests under Canada's Privacy Act for information about their paycheques since Phoenix started making headlines last April.

That's triple the number of requests made last fiscal year and 10 times the number from 2014-15.

"It's another desperate measure for people to try to manage their own pay," said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents more than 57,000 government workers across Canada.

I think people are now grasping at straws ...- Debi Daviau , PIPSC president

"[That] is really sad to begin with, that employees would be expected to have to intervene at this level just to secure their correct pay. I think people are now grasping at straws because they don't see any other options. [Access to information requests] take an extraordinarily long time."

Tens of thousands of public servants have been underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all since the new pay system rolled out almost a year ago.

Some workers still don't know if they are getting paid correctly because they are struggling to get answers from the pay centre.

2 complaints to privacy commissioner

One public service manager in Ottawa complained to Canada's privacy commissioner that the government is holding back his pay records, in violation of his legal rights. 

After almost a year of pay problems and unreturned calls, he filed an access to information request to find out how his pay was being calculated. 

CBC News has agreed not to name that manager over fears he could face reprisals at work. He's one of two people who have officially complained to the privacy commissioner. 

I'm outraged. I don't understand.- Federal public service manager

His request came back without any records about how his pay is calculated.

"I'm outraged. I don't understand," said the manager.

"They're dispersing massive sums of money. There seems to be enough evidence that they are screwing it up. And they don't appear to have any records or paper trail.

"The Privacy Act is supposed to have teeth," he added. 

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada investigated and had the department in charge of Phoenix make "a thorough secondary search for records," according to a letter.

Again, no records were found.

Phoenix does the math

The department in charge of Phoenix said it does keep a record of employee pay, but the computer software does the math automatically and doesn't generate reports that break down the calculations for public servant's files. 

"Keeping records that support the calculation of employee pay is a legal requirement that is taken very seriously. There are numerous controls in place to ensure these records are being kept by departments, by the pay centre and within the payroll system," said Public Services and Procurement Canada in a statement to CBC News. 

The manager said that response confirms "records" do exist and he feels it's his legal right that the government, at the very least, screengrabs the information it has, prints it out and sends him a copy.

The president of PIPSC agreed that this information should be made available.

"At least through an [access to information request] you would think that an employee has the right to access the information the government is holding on them," said Daviau.

Dabi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service, says almost a year after Phoenix rolled out, public servants still don't know if they are being paid properly. (CBC)

'Decoding' new pay stubs

New pay stubs that are more detailed with extra lines of information are now available for the first two pay periods in 2017, said Public Services and Procurement Canada. 

The government also plans to soon provide more information on all past pay stubs since Phoenix was implemented after receiving complaints about the new pay stubs.

However, PIPSC said the stubs are still too complicated and not worth the $6 million the government paid IBM for enhancements to the system. 

"People are still not understanding all the codes and are having to go to multiple locations to decode the information that they're receiving," said Daviau. 

"It's extremely frustrating, they are in financial dire straights. They're having to spend an enormous amount of time trying to figure this all out. Although some improvements have been made, they don't go nearly far enough to bridge the gap that was created through this fiasco."


Ashley Burke


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