Phoenix: the Senate wants answers

February 09, 2018

Wednesday night, members of the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance heard from CAPE and other public service unions about public servants’ experiences with the Phoenix pay system. Members of the committee, encouraged by the auditor general, have been conducting their own study into Phoenix.

It’s been two years since a shocking number of public service employees started being underpaid or experiencing other errors in the calculation of their pay – two years of fear, dread and uncertainty,” said CAPE National President Greg Phillips. “And even for those fortunate enough not to be plagued with any pay issue, the very scale of the problem meant that, for two years, they have worried about becoming Phoenix’s next victim.”

During his testimony, Phillips shared some of our members’ stories. One member, he recounted, experienced sporadic pay after returning to work following an accident. For months, this member went entire pay periods without pay and had to deal with Phoenix trying to recoup overpayments. How are members expected to recover properly while dealing with the added stress brought about by Phoenix?

Another member also experienced a nightmare of his own during what ought to have been one of the most special times of his life: the birth of his child. This member only received the relevant parental leave documents five months after he had already returned to work. While this member was trying to obtain emergency salary advances, he was also being asked to refund overpayments. He spent his baby’s first fifteen months trying to fix the resulting financial mess.

For their part, senators were equally appalled by the hardships that our members have endured.

We’re beyond — at least I am beyond disappointed,” said Senator Douglas Black. 

“I think this is shocking, disappointing and embarrassing. It is not what you’d expect in a first world country. You’ve got an ally here, because I find it infuriating and insulting.

CAPE, the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada took the opportunity to make a series of recommendations that would, at the very least, alleviate some of the problems afflicting public service employees.

CAPE recommended that the employer stop collecting overpayments from members who are also trying to resolve underpayments. Because Phoenix is programmed to automatically recover advanced funds from the first available funds, many of our members have seen their paycheques evaporate immediately following an emergency pay advance.

With tax season approaching, CAPE also recommended extending the income tax filing date for public servants experiencing pay problems.

The national president also pointed to the broader consequences brought on by Phoenix. Public servants have scaled back their charitable donations. Fundraising totals from the Government of Canada’s charitable workplace campaign have declined since 2016.

Similarly, the association argued that when federal public servants are not paid, or not paid what they should be, it can be disruptive to the broader economy and to local economies. These public servants simply aren’t pumping as much money into the local economy, which means that small business are also hurting because of Phoenix.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada called for the government increase the number of pay advisers, but, more importantly, to put pay advisers in departments and agencies where members work.

We need more compensation advisers, not only in Miramichi or the satellite offices, but we need to put the pay advisers back into the departments and agencies so they can address the individual issues,” said PSAC National Executive Vice-President Chris Aylward.

The issue of training was also raised. During the committee’s Tuesday hearing, with TBS and PSPC senior leaders, senators learned that only 40 per cent of public service employees had gone through Phoenix training. Unions contended that this training ought to have been mandatory and ought to have been available years earlier.

PIPSC, whose membership includes government IT professionals, recommended that the government look to its membership to develop an in-house pay system. The institute has been publicly advocating for the government to ditch the beleaguered Phoenix pay system.

CAPE encouraged the senators to keep all options on the table, including the institute’s proposal.

Is it at least reasonable to start looking at how long it would take [PIPSC members] to create a system?,” asked Phillips. “At least investigate the opportunity and then go from there.”

Senators were very receptive to the unions’ recommendations and are considering visiting the Miramichi pay centre to speak with the men and women on the frontlines of the Phoenix debacle.

Finally, CAPE also took the time to praise the incredible professionalism and dedication our members have shown during this ordeal. It’s that level of commitment that allowed the government to function rather than experience a national crisis, said Phillips.

Throughout this saga, public servants have been steadfast; they keep showing up to work despite not getting paid correctly and continue to deliver world class services to Canadians. Likewise, they expect their leaders to show up with the same level of determination and commitment – to treat this issue with the urgency and seriousness it deserves.”

You can read President Greg Phillips' complete opening statement here (PDF). To listen to the hearing, click here