How long would you continue doing your job if you could never be sure if your employer was going to pay you?
That’s the situations being faced by approximately half of all federal public sector workers. Workers have been improperly paid, or not paid at all, since the implementation of the Phoenix payroll program introduced by the Harper Conservative government, but implemented by Trudeau’s Liberals.
Late last month, the federal government began offering pay incentives in order to recruit and retain compensation advisors, after eliminating some 700 jobs of compensation staff before the transition to Phoenix. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and Treasury Board offering a wide range of incentives to find and retain these compensation advisors, including a one-time payment of $4,000 and compensating over time at double time rates. Letters have been sent to former compensation officers, asking them to consider returning to help fix the problems. One of these letters reached a 96 year old retiree, an example of extreme desperation.
Canadians recently learned that IBM Canada was the only company to bid for the contract of the federal public sector pay system, raising further questions of mismanagement by Public Services and Procurement Canada. Taxpayers have since been on the hook for the cost for fixing the faulty pay system, which, so far, has risen to over $750 million. In April of 2016, the Minister responsible for Phoenix, Judy Foote, went on family related leave and eventually resigned in August. She has been replaced by Cara Qualtrough.
On September 21, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada tabled its annual report. The report includes details about an investigation into privacy concerns related to Phoenix, reporting that there have been at least 11 privacy breaches related to Phoenix involving employee names and salary information.
The largest federal public sector union, the PSAC, has pushed Treasury Board to compensate members for penalties, interest charges and other fees incurred due to pay problems. They are also demanding that employees be compensated for accrued interest due to late payments, and reimbursement of fees for tax professionals to help with significant tax problems.
Components of the PSAC, including my own – the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU) –have run awareness and shaming campaigns in an effort to raise pressure on the federal government to fix phoenix.
Across the country, federal public sector workers are protesting the pay system. Union representatives and elected leaders are regularly working to escalate cases. In December of 2016, unions representing public sector workers suspended pending court actions in exchange for a consent order that promised more information about the problems plaguing the pay system, and more consultation about steps to resolve employee pay issues. A Union Management Consultations Committee was also formed, for the government and unions to work together on solving the problem. The government was also directed to improve access to help people on disability, maternity, and parental leave. As well, the consent order required the government to maintain the staffing levels needed to fix Phoenix.
Many federal employees feel a deep loyalty for their work serving Canadians and future Canadians. And while they feel betrayed by an employer who does not provide them with timely or proper pay, there is a fear amongst many workers of taking more direct action that could disrupt their normal pay, putting families living paycheck to paycheck further into a precarious situation at the hands of Phoenix.
Federal public sector workers created a Facebook group with nearly 4,000 members where they’re trying to help one another navigate their pay issues and support each other. Many of them have expressed their frustrations with the unions representing them, asking what more could be done.
Without question, this has led to a mental health crisis in the federal public sector. New mothers cannot focus on their new born child because they are terrified of not being paid, or of having their medical coverage cut off as an offset of Phoenix. Some going on long-term disability are not receiving any benefits payments as Phoenix, in some cases, has not issued a Record of Employment to the benefits provider. In British Columbia, the only province that collects a separate Medical Services Plan fee for health services, some are having their fees invoices sent to collections and their access to health care put in jeopardy along with their credit rating.
Our unions understand the magnitude of this disaster and are working to assist members to be paid correctly and on time. Unions are fighting to reinstate more departmental compensation advisors so that employees can speak to subject matter experts, rather than call centre agents who are not trained to help them. The possibility of finding an alternative pay system or reinstating the old one, according to the federal government, is said to be unobtainable – leaving us with the only alternative of holding the employer accountable by pressuring them to commit all necessary resources to fix Phoenix and compensate their employees.
Ultimately, politicians pay attention to that which might affect them at the ballot box. With the likelihood of Phoenix not being fixed prior to the next federal election, Liberals in the National Capital region may find themselves in a precarious situation, as well as any other Liberal riding where federal public sector workers make up a large portion of the workforce.
During a national labour management meeting last week, a senior executive advised our union not to encourage our members to escalate situations where things like acting pay were not being provided, in an effort to allow more dire situations to be addressed. How much are we expected to put up with? Why does the federal government think that they get to define a new normal when it comes to something so basic as receiving pay for our work? There is a sense that we are collectively becoming complacent in a situation that should be responded to with anything but complacency.
PSAC and other unions have been keeping the heat on the government to fix Phoenix. But we seem to be moving further and further away from what should be a simple matter of acknowledging and demanding compliance with the basic principle that workers should be paid accurately and on time for their labour. Forget fair compensation – how about just getting a regular paycheck?