Public servants bemoan state of Phoenix pay system

A supervisor buys groceries for a summer student; a two-time cancer survivor sinks deeper into debt; a new mom goes weeks without a paycheque. Here's an up-close look at the federal public service payroll mess, from the people most affected.

Public service workers unload frustrations as pay debacle continues

Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A supervisor covers the grocery bills for a summer student; a single mom and two-time cancer survivor sinks deeper into debt; a worker on maternity leave goes weeks without a paycheque. Here's an up-close look at the federal public service payroll mess, from the people most affected.


Despite the introduction of temporary measures aimed at reducing the backlog of public servants awaiting payment, CBC Ottawa continues to field calls and emails from workers affected by the snafu. 

If you want to add your story to our coverage please email us.

The federal government introduced its new Phoenix payroll system, designed by IBM, in February, but ongoing problems have meant some federal workers are now facing financial difficulties.

Judy Foote, minister of public services and procurement, told CBC News a temporary pay centre in Gatineau will operate for "as long as it takes.
Chris Aylward, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says IBM, the company that designed the new payroll system, should take some of the blame. (CBC)

"We want to make sure public servants don't go without a pay cheque. So we'll do whatever we have to do for as long as we have to do it to make sure the backlog is cleared up and that outstanding issues around training are taken care of," said Foote.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service is now approving loans to members who are having trouble paying their bills as a result of the pay transformation. The union will loan up to $5,000, free of interest.

Unions and workers complain federal departments and the pay program's call centre have been very slow to react or to even provide a response to their concerns

Here's a snapshot of emails and Tweets we've received in recent days. Some people, despite identifying themselves to CBC Ottawa, have asked to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions on the job.


Doomed from the start

Wrote one public servant: I was hired as a compensation advisor for the Miramichi pay centre back in 2013 and am now back in Ottawa, still in compensation but with a local agency. People are quick to blame location or Phoenix but I can tell you with certainty that much of the issue laid in how quickly files were transferred.

Everyone was cautiously optimistic at the arrival of Phoenix, but as soon as the February transfer occurred, everyone realized it was not going to be as smooth sailing as first anticipated.- email from public servant

The biggest issue is that files were transferred quicker than the pay centre was staffed and trained.

Everyone was cautiously optimistic at the arrival of Phoenix, but as soon as the February transfer occurred, everyone realized it was not going to be as smooth sailing as first anticipated. There were a number of employees that got caught between the two systems: their files transferred onto Phoenix even though their department was not transferred.

The problem should have been caught earlier. It is not a matter of location but a matter of pace: by transferring files as quickly as it did, the federal government did not give itself any time to adjust to the workload and ensuing backlog. It created an extremely stressful environment that forced many to leave, quit or take extended stress leave which has overloaded remaining employees.



Situation worse for summer students

Another public servant expressed worry over the plight of summer students caught in the mess: They are here usually for a four-month term and have budgeted their whole term on the money they were promised.

Housing in Ottawa is expensive and for a short-term rental one of my [student employees] needed to pay her rent up front. She didn't know that anything was wrong because you don't get your first payment cheque even under ideal circumstances until after you've worked for two weeks.

'I only found out my student couldn't afford groceries last week, almost halfway through her entire work term.' - email from public servant

Then they tell us that the service standard for the pay centre is 20 days, once they have received all the proper documentation, but they don't actually contact you if there's anything missing. In order to get any information you have to call the pay centre and wait on hold for hours before you speak with anyone.

I only found out my student couldn't afford groceries last week, almost halfway through her entire work term. Turns out she has been receiving a pay cheque but only for about half of what she is owed and budgeted on.

Now my department tells me that emergency advances are only being prioritised for employees who aren't getting any pay at all, which puts my student at the bottom of the list. Even if her 20-day wait for an emergency pay cheque starts today, her work term will be almost finished before she sees it, and by then she'll have to figure out whether she can afford tuition.

Students are particularly vulnerable, unrepresented by unions, and aren't going to be around in six months to a year when the pay backlog is finally dealt with.

I'm buying my student groceries and lunch out of my own pocket and everyone in my management seems to agree this is unacceptable but I'm getting nothing more than sympathy.


Pay centre backlogged as well

Sarah, who's been on maternity leave since January, wrote: Where to begin? From late February or early March — until May 18, the pay centre completely stopped paying me — which meant I was only receiving the base employment insurance (less than half my regular take-home pay). 

In the meantime, I spent hours calling the pay centre. The few times I got through I was assigned case numbers and assured it would be treated as a priority but the weeks rolled on with no change.  

Finally, I reached out to my boss who quickly escalated it to the director general level. I was then copied on a flurry of emails involving at least two director generals, two managers and I think a couple other people. This led to me being paid a lump sum of approximately $8,000 on May 18.

Sarah wrote that no interest was paid despite accumulating about $200 in interest charges on her line of credit.

She adds: The saga continues … I have again stopped being paid from the pay centre.


Frustrated cancer survivor

Lisa, a two-time cancer survivor and public servant, found she had a disruption in her pension payments as well as a delay in pay after returning to work from her illness.

She writes: I returned to work just as Phoenix was being launched in my department and the problems have not ended.

A little history. I am a single mother of two teenaged girls with no other financial support other than my salary. My trials and tribulations date back to my initial diagnosis in 2010. With the diagnosis of Stage Three colorectal cancer on November 23, 2010 I did not return to work again until 2012.

During that time, a code put on my pension/pay account stopped pension contributions being taken from my pay cheque. Seems obvious since I wasn't getting a pay cheque. However, upon my return in 2012, the code was never removed and contributions were never restarted. 

I was told that no pension contributions had been taken from my pay dating back to 2010, however my buy back of service contributions were continuing. I have a hard time understanding how one can happen and not trigger the other. 

I had to use my line of credit and credit cards to feed and house myself and my girls.- Lisa, public servant

Regardless, I returned to work in February 2016 on a gradual return to work with a whopping debt hanging over my head. And then my pay cheques didn't come as anticipated. 

With my pay cheques not coming and the hours worked not being reported to Sun Life (my disability provider) I was not receiving money from either. I had to use my line of credit and credit cards to feed and house myself and my girls. I am very grateful to the employees of my federal government department who went above and beyond to try and ensure I was able to get emergency salary advances.

I have weathered this storm successfully but not without extreme stress. Stress that I should not be dealing with when I am still recovering from life-threatening illnesses.

I have to admit the whole thing has left a terrible taste in my mouth.  Where else would such flagrant negligence be tolerated. I am heartened to hear the minister say they are taking action to resolve the issues but I cannot fathom how things have been allowed to get to this extreme.


Disorganization at the top

John Savage left the public service in the spring. He says the payroll woes stem from a disorganized public service that is unresponsive to the needs of its employees.

It took me 18 months for my health care benefit coverage to kick in, just one month before my contract was up. I had to pay $1,394 in health care expenses my colleagues had coverage for, simply because the system doesn't help its employees get registered properly and they laid off our departmental advisor who used to ensure we'd get coverage.

This situation is a symptom of a disorganized public service that is unresponsive to the needs of its employees.- John Savage, former public servant

When I complained about it, they did nothing to fix the situation for other employees. The result is that some employees are not getting all the benefits they should be entitled to through their collective agreement. In other words, they aren't getting paid fully.

Don't blame the current Liberal Government for this situation. Phoenix arose from the ashes of a Harper Government to die at the feet of the Liberal Government. Under Harper, our Public Service was demoralized, dysfunctional, and in disrepair. It's now time to fix it properly.