All work and no pay: The Phoenix debacle

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.12.16 AMBy Crystal Warner
Deputy Trustee BC/YT, Canada Employment and Immigration Union

Initiated in 2009 by the Conservative government in an effort to modernize pay, Public Services and Procurement Canada unveiled a plan to centralize compensation for federal workers in Miramichi, New Brunswick.

In February of 2016, on the watch of the Liberals, the IBM-created Phoenix pay system went live in 34 government departments despite protests from our union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which represents many federal government employees. 120,000 employees anticipated receiving their first pay under Phoenix on March 9.

By April, media outlets began reporting that Phoenix was causing pay issues. The National Executive Vice-President of the PSAC is quoted in CBC: “They’re simply not getting paid. They’re not getting paid on time. They’re not getting paid accurately.”

Watching the Phoenix pay debacle unfold has been excruciating. These last few months have been flooded with SOS cries from our membership base. We’ve had calls from members who could not pay for their medication.

Some have had to return vehicles to car dealerships. Some have had cell phones turned off, and others have defaulted on their mortgage payments. All because our employer is not paying us for our hours of work.

As employees of the Government of Canada, our members are going to work every day and are either not being paid or not knowing if they will be paid. Some are being overpaid, causing an entirely different set of concerns. Amazingly, they continue to show up every day at the office to serve the public.

The stories get increasingly difficult: A single mother from Victoria who has not been able to pay her rent. The member in Kamloops who cannot pay her medical bill.

The father in Surrey who gave up temporary custody of his children to his ex-wife because he could not afford to put food on the table. Or the member who has been making use of a food bank for the last several weeks.

The employer often calls on the union for updates, because they can’t keep track of their own payroll. And every week, some of us continue to do their job for them if it means putting food on the table for our members.

After we meet with the employer, we often have to go back and explain to the young worker in Nanaimo that they’re still telling us there is little they can do, that the responsibility is on somebody back East. Then, the employer asks her if she has family who could help pay her student loan this month?

In some cases, after meeting with the union or at the request of a senior manager, the employer has made efforts to escalate cases that are considered to be dire needs through their own networks. A senior executive has the ability to get in touch with a departmental liaison officer at the pay center, and flag a file as urgent, or receive a more in-depth update.

But what qualifies as dire needs these days remains an anomaly. Is it a cancelled cell phone bill, an inability to put food on the table, or defaulting on one’s mortgage – with so many workers living pay check to paycheck, ‘dire need’ happens quickly for most people.

Once an employee experiences a missed paycheck as a result of a Phoenix issue, the employer suggests to them that they seek approval to receive an Emergency Salary Advance (ESA). Often taking several days, if not weeks, for receipt, ESA’s only provide up to 60 per cent of an employee’s regular pay. How many weeks can most people survive off of 60 per cent of their regular pay?

In the first few weeks of the debacle, frustrated managers suggested to their pay check less employees that it would be easier for them to just borrow money from their union then spend hours on hold with the pay center, causing a rift between many local activists and their colleagues, having to explain that the union was not the employers bank.

Our mothership union, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), along with other federal government unions, filed a Notice of Application in Federal Court that the government provide timely and accurate pay for public service employees. They launched an online letter writing campaign and filed a policy grievance for the aggrieved workers at the pay center in Miramichi.

In the meantime, our members are filing grievances while incurring interest payments on the credit cards they are using to buy groceries. They are being charged with insufficient fund fees for their automatic payments, and defaulting on loans.

Ironically, new security clearance measures for federal workers includes a credit check. Will Phoenix eventually result in employees being unable to get their security clearance by failing their credit checks? Will they then lose their employment altogether?

Amazingly, as emails of urgent frustration flood Minister of Public Services and Procurement Judy Foote’s office, and as calls roll into Treasury Board President Scott Brison, the Deputy Minister chose this as an appropriate moment to present an award to the Phoenix pay system implementation team who “through collaboration and innovation…worked tirelessly to ensure the successful implementation.”

They hail the pay system, as “represent[ing] a huge step towards achieving the Department’s vision of automation, simplification and harmonization of HR business processes,” according to an internal email sent to Service Canada employees and obtained by RankandFile.ca.  A couple weeks later, the Liberal Government has asked the Auditor General to investigate the planning and rollout of the new pay system. Perhaps the employer should have held off on their awards ceremonies.

Now our members are being told not to worry. Call centers to assist are being set up in Toronto, Montreal, Shawinigan and Winnipeg. Maybe they can find some of the compensation and benefits officers the Conservatives fired when they announced plans to centralize pay services in Miramichi back in 2010.

In Toronto, staff hired from temp agencies with no security clearance have been given scripts to help calm employees going without pay – a triage call center that’s only effectiveness seems to be further frustrating workers going without pay.

For the over 80,000 employees experiencing pay issues, we have now been given a deadline for resolution: October 31, 2016. Halloween jokes aside, how is this projection date supposed to put at ease anyone who isn’t receiving a paycheck?

Oh, and please ignore the huge privacy breach of 300,000 workers personal information, as reported by the CBC.

If you’re a senior bureaucrat, you needn’t worry. There’s a special number set up just for you and your colleagues to call where you’ll have immediate access to a live person to help you with your pay problems. Be sure you don’t share that number with your employees.

Do we need to show images of homeless public servants in the media before this problem is fixed? By now, someone should have pulled out a cheque book and ledger.

Our union is consciously aware that the two, and in some cases three-year mark without a signed collective agreement has passed for some workers. And as this government continues to seek concessions on sick leave, we have to consider the impact Phoenix may have in mobilizing our members as we prepare for an impasse.

Actually, forget about an impasse at the table. This is the time for us to be shouting from the rooftops. Any Canadian, begrudging of public sector workers or not, empathizes with a worker not being paid. What actions are we prepared to begin taking as we stand in solidarity with our colleagues and friends going without?

I can’t help but remember Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s open letter to the public service during the last federal election. Respect, he said, for our public servants.

Maybe he can start by handing out some paychecks.

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4 thoughts on “All work and no pay: The Phoenix debacle

  1. All these articles that we are seeing about the measures the government are taking to fix the issues are a joke! According to the priority system they sent out recently, my son should be a priority one as he received no pay since March. His contract is now ended and they owe him 5 weeks pay. He phones right after every pay day and gets no answers, they promise someone will phone him within 3 days, but he has never been contacted, not once! It’s been 4 and a half months and nothing. He phoned last week and was told they have such backlog that his case number is no good so they gave him a new one! He phoned this week and reached this new call centre in Toronto and they told him they don’t even have access to see his account, what is even the point of this call centre, a complete waste of money. Also they are not issuing ROEs so members who contracts have ended are having issues with unemployment. They are never going to get this fix until they bring back individual compensation advisors, preferable the ones who knew what they were doing!

  2. Please do not endorse the language of the oppressor. “Modernize” is mediaprettytalk code for rolling back negotiated wages and working conditions to those of the Industrial Revolution. Employees are to be considered “commodities” that should be purchased as cheaply as possible and discarded when cheaper can be found. And with “free” trade and globalization there will always be cheaper employees to be found somewhere. Face it, this is the race to the bottom. There is no real difference between any of the major parties in this regard, they all cling to exploitative Friedmanite neo-liberal economic policies in which regard for individual worker’s well-being does not factor in whatsoever.

    For public servants in particular, this sort of voodoo economics makes no sense at all. The public service is not a business, a public service has the ability to carefully consider long-term investments for the public good. But public services are being managed/bungled as businesses, with hyper-concern to cost-cutting and downsizing to meet fantasy budget numbers. The dominant rhetoric amongst neo-liberal politicians is that public services should cost as little as possible so as to lessen the tax burden the wealthy elites, or preferably, be abolished altogether (with the hovering threat that we’ll take our toys and go home if we don’t get what we want).

    NO more to corporate lobbyists. Why do corporations have greater access to our elected government than ordinary citizens? As an example, take a look at the compensatory features “negotiated” within the new round of “free” trade agreements. A central feature is enshrining the “right” of corporations to sue governments for compensation if any of the laws/regulations of that country impede the corporations from making profits that would be made within a non-regulated country. And be compensated without public knowledge. What?

  3. Pingback: Federal government overpaid more than 20,000 public servants

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