Ottawa

Phoenix preventing public servants from retiring

More than a year-and-a-half into the Phoenix fiasco, Dale and Susan Skaarup are worried that Susan's ongoing problems with her federal government paycheque could hijack their long-awaited retirement. Several federal workers reached out to CBC with concerns over irregular pension calculations due to the failed pay system.

On-going Phoenix problems include wrong pension deductions and benefits

Dale and Susan Skaarup, both public servants, are putting off any life decisions until Susan's Phoenix pay problems are resolved. (CBC)

More than a year-and-a-half into the Phoenix fiasco, Dale and Susan Skaarup are worried that Susan's ongoing problems with her federal government paycheque could hijack their long-awaited retirement.

"Until this gets sorted out, I can't in good faith retire," said Susan Skaarup.

She's not alone. Several federal workers reached out to CBC with concerns over irregular pension calculations due to the failed pay system. And more than 156,000 public servants have received incorrect pay since the Phoenix system launched in February 2016, with many now discovering problems with their pension calculations.

"We're not sure, could you even retire and get paid? These are the kinds of things that are in our mind and have been for a year and a half," said Dale Skaarup who works for the Canada Revenue Agency, and is so far unscathed by Phoenix.

Low priority

The couple said the pay problems are stressful and seemingly unending as their calls to the public service pay centre, to managers, the union and even their MP have not led to any resolution.

In fact, Susan said she's been told her case is a low priority compared to many other files.

"Once you get into financial matters, it's very difficult to get them sorted out with pensions and taxes, and all the other source deductions like employment insurance or disability insurance, these are all things taken off your pay cheque at government," said Skaarup.

Michele Charrier, a public servant in Ottawa, is trying to sort out Phoenix tax and pension issues after almost two years of pay problems. (CBC)

As a program manager with Health Canada, Michele Charrier also has retirement within her sights, but she can't confirm a date right now.

"I can't retire until this is settled, because, God forbid, I retire and then two years later and they go, Mrs. Charrier, you owe us X," said Charrier who was paid two salaries for eight months starting in the spring of 2016. "I'd rather take care of it now."

Charrier said she and others have been told to trust that the system will correct itself, but she fears that the calculations the pay centre is working with are all wrong and that no one is prepared to sit down with her to straighten out the problem.

"I don't trust that number right now, because I don't think they have it right. So that will affect my pension amount for sure," she said. "Until this issue is resolved completely, when I've paid back the money, we're all happy, we're all getting along, then I can go off into the sunset and retire."

'Knocking on my coffin lid'

Others affected by Phoenix have opted to retire, regardless of the erroneous calculations.

Deeanna Patterson, who took early retirement last July after 30 years as a seasonal worker with Parks Canada, is still owed money, but considering the Phoenix problems, she's not sure when or if she'll see the money.

"I have a vision of me being long since in my grave and some official digging me up one day, knocking on my coffin lid and asking me if I can fill out some new government form asking me if I still wish to be paid," said Patterson in a newsletter for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Chris Aylward is national executive VP of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. (CBC)

The union is well aware of the pension concerns and it's encouraging members to reach out to the federal pension centre in Shediac, New Brunswick, if they want to figure out their own personal pension file.

"Nobody should simply say, 'I'm going to retire next Monday,' unless they know for sure that the amount they're going to get is correct," said Chris Aylward, national executive vice president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. "It could take months for that reconciliation to take place in Phoenix and they won't see a pension cheque until that's done."

'Retire when they choose'

By contrast, the federal government is telling public servants to "retire when they choose".

"Even when employees have outstanding pay issues, they can retire," said the office of the minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada in a statement to CBC. "Pension advisors ensure that data transferred from the pay system is complete and accurate and that it adheres to pension legislation." 

The federal government also said it's set up a pay and pension working group.

But after months of inaction on her pay file, Susan Skaarup and her husband are skeptical.

"It is becoming more apparent that there is no way someone could retire until these pay issues are resolved," said Susan. "It is nearly impossible to have anyone look at the problems now. How difficult would it be once you are no longer operating from within the organization?"

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the new CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca