Federal employees rally against Phoenix Pay System

Shannon Blum, president of the local chapters of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, marches down the picket line during a rally held to call for the government to resolve issues with Phoenix Pay System. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Union says some have gone bankrupt or been forced to sell their land as problems that plague the system continue two years after it was implemented

Federal employees are growing increasingly frustrated as they continue to experience difficulties getting paid through the Phoenix Pay System.

A few dozen federal employees from the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) rallied outside the Saskatchewan Penitentiary Wednesday to remind the federal government of their plight. They were joined by Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne and Coun. Terra Lennox-Zepp in their call for a resolution to the years-long Phoenix Pay System debacle.

Chants of “What do we want? People! What do we want to get rid of? Phoenix!” Echoed up and down the picket line. When one rally leader asked when people want to be paid, while most echoed back “now,” a few chimed in with “two years ago.”

“We’re out here to remind the federal government that the situation is not resolved and we are not happy,” said Shannon Blum, president of Local 40023, 4A023 and 4B023 at the noon hour rally.

Blum said that at least 50 per cent of local members, if not more, are still experiencing pay issues.

“Every single one of us wonders every pay period if we’re going to be paid, and if we are, if it’s going to be correct,” she said.

“I think it has a huge effect not only on us, but also on our community. We hold onto every dollar because we don’t know if the paycheque is coming next pay period. We’re not buying houses, we’re not buying cars, our kids aren’t gong to sports events, we’re not taking holidays — I think this impacts every Canadian.”

Dionne echoed Blum’s comments.

“We’re here because these are our citizens. This is who we represent. These are our coaches, our volunteers, and they’re not spending money in our community because they’re worried about their cheques,” he said.

“I’m amazed the government hasn’t sorted it out.”

Blum said individual members have lost a lot as the pay systems have continued. Some, she said, have lost “literally everything.

“I have heard of people selling land, declaring bankruptcy and cashing in their entire stock of RRSPs,” she said.

PSAC also invited Prince Albert’s Conservative MP, Randy Hoback. He was in Ottawa, but said he fully supports the employees dealing with pay issues.

“We’re doing everything we can,” he said.

Hoback indicated his office had helped in a few individual instances where people weren’t getting the pay they were entitled to them.

“They’re frustrated, they’re in tears in a lot of cases and I really feel for them for sure.”

A few dozen people attended a rally outside Saskatchewan Penitentiary on Feb. 28, 2018 to call on the government to do more to resolve issues with the Phoenix Pay System. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The Phoenix Pay System was developed under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, but launched by the Trudeau Liberals. It has been mired in problems from day one, with people not being paid, being underpaid and being overpaid. So far, over $460 million has been spend trying to fix the system, which was originally intended as a way to save money.

Hundreds have been hired and studies conducted, but the system still doesn’t work.

In Tuesday’s budget, the federal government promised an additional $431.4 million over six years starting in the 2017-18 budget year to hire additional staff at the pay centre and at satellite offices, as well as within departments themselves to assist employees with payroll issues as they arise. The budget also earmarked $5.5 million over two years to the Canada Revenue Agency to process individual tax reassessments due to the issues that have been encountered.

But there are signs the Liberals are already looking to move forward with a new solution. The budget set aside $16 million over two years, beginning in 2018-19, to “work with experts, unions and tech providers on a new way forward for a new pay system.”

The document also promised to continue taking action reimbursing employed who incurred personal expenses, and to not force anyone to pay back overpayments until after their tax return has been processed, and any excess withholdings or liabilities against them calculated.

Despite the measures promised in Wednesday’s budget, employees are skeptical they’ll see any meaningful solutions.

“I suppose I’m cautiously optimistic,” Blum said. “I don’t think we have a lot of faith at all right now. Time will tell.”

Hoback shared Blum’s lack of optimism.

“At least they’re putting some money and resources into it to fix it, but it’s the details that matter here,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter how much more money you throw at it; if you’re not throwing at it in the right way, it won’t fix it. They haven’t been taking it seriously. They didn’t take it seriously right from day one when they hit the on button, and they haven’t given me a lot of confidence that they’ll do something gin the future that will fix the problem.”

For Blum, that’s one of the main frustrations. PSAC has been advocating for two years, and feels the government didn’t take things seriously soon enough.

“I really wish they had listened to us in the beginning. PSAC was very clear the system wasn’t working, and we weren’t listened to.”

Blum said PSAC wants three things: they want compensation people back on worksites so workers have a human face to talk to, they’d like to see the government stop taking back gross amounts from those who were overpaid, and they’d like to see damages for members who have lost everything.

Mayor calls on province to take action

Prince Albert Mayor Greg Dionne stands alongside members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, inlcuding local president Shannon Blum, during a rally to call for changes to the much-maligned Phoenix Pay System on Feb. 28, 2018. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

While Dionne is also fed up with the federal government, he would also like to see more action from the province.

“We have labour laws to protect our employers,” he said.

“I don’t know why the provinces haven’t said enough is enough. Why are they sitting silent? If I was a private company and I broke all the rules they did, the government would be all over us.

“We have to get together and convince the Liberal government to solve this problem today, not in the future.”

The province, in a brief emailed statement, said the issue is a matter of federal jurisdiction and doesn’t fall under provincial labour law. The Ministry of Labour Relations declined further comment.