The Government’s Phoenix pay system has failed Canada’s unionized workers

Written By Guest User, Posted on February 10, 2020

Imagine if you will, that you go to work as usual, and put in your time. When payday comes, nothing is deposited into your bank account. You ask your employer, and they tell you not to worry: give the pay center a call, and they will resolve it promptly. 

Now, you call the pay center. They don’t have the answers you’re looking for. They put you on a call list, and someone will (hopefully) get back to you within a week. No one does. You are starting to worry because time has passed, and your bills are due shortly. 

You find out eventually that this was because of a new software system. You didn’t get all the information from your employer, no, it came from the news. They said they would try and resolve it for you as soon as possible. In the meantime, they offer you emergency pay, which you take. But they tell you this is only good for one time, and they will not give you the money you have worked for again. And you’ll have to repay it. 

Eventually, one day, the system starts paying you again. The system deposited $10,000 into your account. You call the pay center, and still, they tell you someone will call you within a week. No one does. You keep trying, week after week, until they finally call you back, stating, they will deduct the monies from your paycheck. They will be taking back the gross amount from the net $10,000, which went into your account. Now, you work the next few months for no pay, hoping to collect a paycheck at some point soon.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau promised a relationship of partnership with Government workers. The letter can be found here on the Federal Liberal Party website. The prime minister iterates the shortfall of the Services that were provided by programs such as Veteran Affairs, Employment Insurance, the CRA, Immigration and others. Due to the cuts public services faced, they became the whipping boy for the Government when programs were not delivered as promised. He promised updated systems, policies, and support mental health in the workplace while leaving sick days alone. 

‘As Liberals, we understand that modern workplaces must be flexible enough to accommodate unexpected absences – taking time off to care for a sick child, attending a doctor’s appointment, or working from home while on bedrest. Employers should continually look for opportunities to improve the benefits that employees receive, but these benefits should not be unilaterally imposed by employers, or taken away, without proper negotiation.’

It probably won’t surprise you that taking away those sick days that Trudeau promised to defend is on the chopping block. Workers have been recipient to 1.25 sick days on average over the past four years. So, calling in sick is a no-no.

After the election, Trudeau made a bold proclamation saying that the Phoenix pay system would be resolved by October 2016. The union told him this wouldn’t be possible based on what the pay departments told them, with 22,000 cases unresolved at the time. He assured them it would be fine, and that it would be fixed. It wasn’t. 

The flawed Phoenix pay system will remain in effect, until 2023-2024, in which the government will allocate “$340 – $352 per each account, or between $101.9 million and $105.7 million annually beginning in 2023-24, to operate the new pay system, including both software and labour costs,” according to the Parliamentary Budget Office

Turnover became commonplace as workers did not receive consistent pay. Ultimately, many left for greener pastures. Government workers are now operating on almost permanent overtime to keep up with the volume. Far from his promise to facilitate public services more efficiently, the workers find themselves continually short-staffed, and once again are apologizing to the public when things are not done on time. 

Some iterate that the massive cuts worsened phoenix to personnel, training and infrastructure by the Harper administration, which can only be fixed with long-term commitments to hiring competent people and providing them with the necessary training.

The author of this Ottawa Sun article claims, “Harper nonetheless forced through and further paralyzed by ensuring that there [was] virtually no human resource or software personnel qualified to work on the system.”

But for many, there is enough blame to go around, and our civil servants have bared the cost of past and present mistakes.

Union members strike, with 140,000 PSAC members without a contract post-election

Recently, one of the unions representing CRA workers, PSAC, announced that strike votes would be beginning to be held in mid-February. According to their website, they have been at an impasse since 2015. The Union has asked for the cost of living increases and has proposed work-life balance, increased job security, and enhancing working conditions for call centers.

The government’s counteroffer? Nothing. Personal days will be going — no help for workers who haven’t gotten paid — no compensation for the headaches endured by workers who had not yet received their paychecks. Now, 140,000 are without a contract.

While in the past, we spoke against individual unions and organizations striking, this is a case we can rally behind. Now, the public needs to tell the government to back down and start working together with its workers. 

While we often relay that civil servants are “overpaid” and with “generous benefits,” the truth is the majority of civil servant wages do not exceed the average salary of Canadians. According to Stats Canada, the average wage was $26.92 an hour in 2018. In the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, PSAC wages were tens of thousands of dollars lower per annum than the mean. And of course, this is if they even get paid in the first place.

The benefit package has less than a few retail organizations — another reason for the high turnover. If it weren’t for the pension, the majority of workers would likely have left many years ago. 72 per cent of its workers have been impacted to some degree by the pay issues, with 51 per cent citing it influenced their choice to change careers.

Placing a call to the CRA, Veterans affairs, Employment Insurance or over government institutions has become tedious and often fruitless. It may take you weeks to also facilitate talks because the ques are so backlogged. When you do get through, you hear a very sympathetic agent who has to apologize sincerely for things that weren’t done. 

You get mad because you know it’s not his/her fault. It is the organization, the structure, and just not enough workers. But then again, why would workers stay? It goes without saying that if the public service suffers, we all suffer, especially when our government is unaccountable for its mistakes, past and present.

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