Ottawa

Anxiety over Phoenix crippling workers, families

Chuck and Shauna Rowsell spent hours in a Kingston, Ont., emergency room last week while hospital staff puzzled over the cause of Shauna's illness. For Chuck, it was no medical mystery: he blames the federal government's failed Phoenix pay system.

76% of workers affected by Phoenix have experienced mental health issues, according to union survey

Public servants denounce the Phoenix pay system during a protest outside the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Chuck and Shauna Rowsell spent hours in a Kingston, Ont., emergency room last week while hospital staff puzzled over the cause of Shauna's illness. For Chuck, it was no medical mystery: he blames the federal government's failed Phoenix pay system.

"Her stomach is knotted up and bound up, and we're sitting down at emergency for eight hours and they release us at close to midnight," he said. "This type of thing can cause a person great stress, and can cause harmful effects to the human body. This is all government-induced. Someone needs to fix this system."

Chuck is a former Canadian Forces member who now works for a federal government agency, and Shauna works for the Department of National Defence.

They're among the thousands of Canadian families affected by the payroll problems that have been going on now for more than two years, in many cases without resolution.

Many report being sickened by the financial and emotional stress wrought by the system's catastrophic failure.

Union surveyed members

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) recently commissioned a survey of its members that found three-quarters of those affected by Phoenix feel the experience has had a negative impact on their mental health. Many reported a similar strain on their personal and work lives.

"More than six in 10 have had negative impacts to their personal lives or ability to work," according to the PSAC survey, published in March by Environics Research.

The Rowsells' woes began in 2016 when Shauna was overpaid for months, then told she had to repay the gross amount of approximately $19,900.

But both Rowsell and her employer calculated her net overpayment at only about  $10,300.

Their stress was compounded when they realized they'd have to take out a bank loan and possibly hire an accountant to resolve the issues with the Phoenix pay centre.

Distress, turmoil, depression 

"We do not want to put ourselves in financial distress by having to go to a bank to borrow money because the government of Canada made mistakes," Chuck Rowsell said. "I want the government to make this right. My house has been in turmoil. My wife is depressed."

What I'm living today is a nightmare. This is not what we signed up for. My wife loved going to work.- Chuck Rowsell

Despite the stress, Shauna Rowsell continues to go to work every day. Applying for sick leave due to Phoenix would only cause more anxiety, her husband said.

"We'd need documentation. We would need [Workeplace Safety and Insurance Board] forms filled out. Again, the onus is on us to prove what's causing this," he said.

Shauna has sought help from her department, her union, her member of parliament and her department's ombudsman.

So far there's been no satisfactory resolution, only more requests for the money the pay centre claims she owes.

The federal government's 2018 budget acknowledged the stress Phoenix is causing workers, but when asked on Wednesday about help for employees suffering from mental health issues due to Phoenix, Treasury Board officials only responded "the Government of Canada continues to offer comprehensive benefits to employees, including sick leave, employee health care benefits, and the‎Employee Assistance Program, among other tools and services."

That's little comfort to the Rowsells.

"What I'm living today is a nightmare," Chuck said. "This is not what we signed up for. My wife loved going to work. We enjoyed going to our employment. Now we dread getting up in the morning knowing what we've got to go face."

now