Ottawa·Reporter Notebook

Public servants clamming up about Phoenix plight

Public servants helped us uncover the scope of the Phoenix fiasco by putting their names and faces to the story. But as Ashley Burke writes, something has changed.

Why have federal employees stopped talking openly about the Phoenix fiasco?

Public servants attend a rally calling on the government to fix the Phoenix payroll system. Lately fewer seem willing to speak publicly about the issue, Ashley Burke says. (CBC)

She's a single mother of a three-year-old boy who's struggling to pay her daycare bill. With Christmas just 11 weeks away, she's already worrying there won't be any presents under the tree for her son.

The woman is a federal public servant who's owed $5,500 in acting pay for a job she's been performing since April.

We can't give you her name because her boss told her not to speak to the media. Speaking with her over the phone, I could tell she was upset, and eager to tell her story. 

"I come to work every day like a good public servant and do my job," said the woman, who told me her situation has left her feeling depressed.

But she also feels that if she speaks out, her job could be in jeopardy. And she can't afford to lose it.

That chill is a growing problem for those of us who are covering the Phoenix pay system saga.

Something has changed

I began working on these stories in July, when public servants were freely sharing the details of their cases. For much of the summer they were more than willing to appear on camera, and didn't seem worried that speaking out could cost them their careers.

But something has changed.

I have heard of certain departments reprimanding employees that have talked against the pay system.- Anonymous pay adviser

It's becoming increasingly difficult to find a public servant who wants to go public. They still email our newsroom on an almost daily basis, but now they want anonymity.

"I worry about the repercussions it may have on my future career," wrote one pay adviser who has to deal with employees who are in tears over their pay issues. "I have heard of certain departments reprimanding employees that have talked against the pay system."

One woman who's been unable to retire due to a Phoenix-related problem told us her union representatives advised her not to talk.

A student who agreed to an interview with CBC earlier this week emailed the newsroom immediately after to request it not be aired. 

"I do not feel comfortable having my interview broadcasted," he wrote.

Deputy minister gave assurances

All this despite assurances from the deputy minister responsible for Phoenix, Marie Lemay, that there would be no retribution for employees who spoke out.

"No one should feel intimidated," says PSPC deputy minister Marie Lemay 0:33

"I've heard that employees are worried about reprisals for coming forward about their pay problems," Lemay said at a news conference on Aug. 11. "I have to say to you, that this for me is very concerning.

"We can't help if we don't know who you are," Lemay added. "I mean, your pay is your right and no one should feel intimidated about voicing their concerns."

Whenever public servants are wavering about letting me name them in a story, I remind them about what Lemay said. But many tell me that even if they believe Lemay, there's no assurance their managers will feel the same way.

Some say they don't want to be branded as trouble makers, and fear being overlooked the next time there's a promotion up for grabs.

One student struggling to pay her bills after being overtaxed $700 due to Phoenix told me she's not willing to kill her career before it even starts. Despite her pay problems, she's hoping for a permanent job after her contract runs out.

A more human place

No one is obliged to speak to the media, or step into the spotlight unwillingly. But the public servants who showed the confidence and courage to put their names and faces to this story are the ones who brought attention to it, and prompted action.

They've also made the federal public service seem like a more human place, instead of some uncaring bureaucracy.

One government employee said the Phoenix stories helped erase the stereotype of the lazy, entitled bureaucrat, replacing it with an image of hard workers who show up to their jobs despite going months without pay.

Cecilia Delfino went unpaid for two months after returning to work from cancer treatment. She received a cheque after sharing her story with CBC News. (CBC)
To be clear, no one I've interviewed about Phoenix has contacted me afterwards to say they faced repercussions at work. They all had their problem fixed, and received the money they were owed — often by the end of the day.

A cheque for cancer survivor Cecilia Delfino arrived by taxi shortly after she appeared on CBC News.

Jarrad Yardon, a student employee with the federal government, said his boss pulled him into his office and told him he was courageous for sharing his story.

It's a really noble thing, sticking your neck out like that. It's not about making my job easier. It's about showing the public there is a problem that persists and needs to be fixed.

A blurred face on TV, a distorted voice on radio, an anonymous quote online — none has the same power as a face, a name and a heart-breaking story honestly told when it comes to forcing change.

About the Author

Ashley Burke

Reporter

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

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