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Pay system glitch leaves grieving mom at wits' end
Federal worker on leave waiting for employment record that would enable her to collect benefits

Jessica Davey-Quantick
Northern News Services
Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Jane has worked for the federal government for 17 years. As of Friday, she had $49 in her bank account.

NNSL photograph

Since going on unpaid leave in April, Jane has amassed a stack of paperwork and correspondence in her efforts to get a single document from the pay system to allow her to claim employment insurance benefits. - Jessica Davey-Quantick/NNSL photo

Her daughter died suddenly in December and in April her nurse practitioner advised she go on unpaid leave.

But the Phoenix pay system, introduced last year in an effort to streamline payment to 300,000 federal employees, wasn't able to provide her record of employment for nearly four months, leaving her unable to claim employment insurance or disability benefits.

A glitch in the Phoenix system meant she was still receiving paycheques from work until July 12 but Jane says now that the money has run out she is worried about paying her mortgage.

"I have zero income. They were so good to cut me off but they can't manage to send a document. One document," she said, sitting at her kitchen table, piles of paperwork and documentation spread between coffee mugs, a picture of her daughter looking down at her from a shelf.

"It's not free to bury somebody," she said. Moving her daughter from Calgary, where she died, to Yellowknife stretched her credit and savings to the limit.

"My credit is racked up for one, and my bank is empty for two. I don't have anything," she said. "I don't have a savings account - you know how some people think everybody has got a freaking stash somewhere? Well I don't."

Jane is not her real name. She says she has been warned by her boss to be careful about what she says, lest she violate her department's code of values and ethics.

A year after problems with Phoenix first bubbled to the surface, thousands of Canadians are still waiting to be paid.

The system was rolled out in February 2016 to replace one that had been in place for 40 years.

It consolidated all pay services to public servants across the country inside a pay center in Miramichi, N.B.

Between June 29 and July 26, the pay system processed about 89,000 transactions, according to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC). But as of July 26, there were roughly 228,000 cases outstanding, beyond the normal workload. Which means the Phoenix pay system managed to process just 35 per cent of transactions.

Jane first requested her record of employment on April 3, again on May 30, and a final time in July. She finally received it on July 18 - but it was incorrect.

"I said, 'I've been waiting, why would you send me a record of employment that's wrong?'" said Jane, adding after almost two decades in records and research, a position she says would once have been called a file clerk, she knows paper.

As Yellowknifer has previously reported, in addition to missing paycheques, the Phoenix glitches have hit people going on parental leave, long-term disability and severance, as well as those owed for pay adjustments, overtime and extra duties.

"All the federal employees up here are still having issues," said Jack Bourassa, regional executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada North.

"A lot of them are afraid ... If they do something out of the ordinary, it changes their status within the Phoenix pay system ... There's something in the system that's not handling what it's supposed to be handling correctly."

He estimated last summer that about half of the approximately 500 federal employees across the North were effected.

Jane said her health has suffered, thanks to the stress of dealing with Phoenix.

"I'm pretty messed up, I'm grieving. I'm on leave for a reason. Like I was crying at work, I can't even talk about it. I haven't even had a chance, and I've had to deal with this. I might as well go and shoot myself," she said.

"If they would have done what they had to do in a timely manner, I would probably be going back to work now. I feel physically sick to my stomach, I won't even go into that building because I want to throw up."

She's now worried that the government will come knocking for her to return the pay she had been receiving since April when she went on leave.

"I had no choice but to take that money," said Jane.

Since last week, Jane has contacted her bank for assistance.

The bank increased her overdraft by $388 to accommodate her mortgage payment.

Nicolas Boucher, a public relations officer with the PSPC stated his department was unable to comment on Jane's specific case, or on the issues continuing to plague Phoenix. Deputy minister Marie Lemay is also staying mum, communicating through technical briefings and updates posted to the department's website.

"The resolution of pay issues remains a top priority across government ... we are working very hard to get these issues addressed and to help affected employees," stated Lemay on June 2.

"Capacity continues to be one of the main challenges. While it's not the only problem, it's the one that has contributed most to the issues employees are experiencing."

Before Phoenix, departments managed payroll themselves with around 2,500 compensation advisers. Phoenix slashed that to 790 in-house advisers, plus the staff in Miramichi.

"They seem steadfast that they know what's wrong and they've assured us it'll get fixed, that the problem isn't as big as we think it is. It certainly is," said Bourassa. "People are losing their homes or have quit working with the government because they can no longer afford to work for the government because they're not getting paid! It's put a lot of people between a rock and a hard place."

Jane sees a simple solution: shoot Phoenix down.

"I hope nobody ever has to sit where I am. There's people behind that system, so don't tell me it's the system," she said.

"It's not only me. It's right across Canada. But you know what, the system was not broken before. We need to go back to sort out all of these issues with it now, we need to bring our pay people back here."

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