This is so encouraging! The more this idea runs around my brain, the more inspiring people pop up for me to interview. I can’t wait to start sharing their thoughts with you 🙂
Before I get into the meat of this post, I should probably try to cover my behind a little here: what follows are my own views and should not be construed as representing the views of my employer. I am a civil servant, and this discussion doesn’t impede my ability to carry out my duties impartially, and I think anyone would be hard-pressed to prove that even the perception of a conflict exists. A person has the right to speak out as a private individual.
Remember my last post where I mentioned that Hubby’s uncertainty was not a big deal because I had a steady income?
That was mostly true, until the end of 2015.
I had a couple of hiccups when I transferred to my current department, but nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of issues I, along with so many others, would suffer following the establishment of the Public Service Pay Centre and the implementation of Phoenix.
I’m going to try to keep this as brief and objective as possible, but I have a penchant towards being verbose and unfortunately, I have skin in the game. Although who am I kidding? I am pretty sure this is going to turn out to be a TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read!)
The basic premise in any employer-employee relationship is that if the employer pays the employee for services rendered, correct?
Canada’s single largest employer is unable to do just that for many of its employees.
You can get a better idea of the timeline here.
Basically, we had a 40-year-old manual system that was cumbersome but worked.
Someone had the bright idea to update to a more modern, automated system, which admittedly is not a bad thing in and of itself.
We had a good number of Compensation Advisors handling employee files. If you believe that the civil service is bloated, as the administration at the time did, and you thought that you could solve the problem with automation, it’s a brilliant cost-cutting measure. Even I would find it an irresistible option!
Let’s look further at their thought process.
These Compensation Advisors are scattered across the country, and we have a particularly economically depressed area that lost a number of jobs when we shut down the gun registry.
So let’s centralize these jobs. We only need 550 people to man this new system, and if we can create these jobs in Miramichi, that would make that riding happy AND people would be less likely to fight to keep working as a Compensation Advisor, because not everyone wants to relocate, much less to Miramichi!
I’d say that’s a political win!
Whether you agree with their politics or not, that’s a pretty shrewd play.
And that’s how we went from 2700 Compensation advisors to 550.
They’re still handling the same number of files.
But automation is going to make things faster!
550 people. No reduction in the number of files to be handled.
What could possibly go wrong?
… and Falling
It seems that if you have a fairly standard pay file, Phoenix, the software produced by IBM as requested by the government, should be able to handle your file with relative ease.
Problems start arising as soon as something on your file changes.
People who are retiring, going on disability, going on leave without pay, going on assignments or secondments, people who work irregular schedules or overtime… basically, any time there is something about your pay that changes or that is irregular, your file can and most likely will get caught up in this albatross.
That means you have A LOT of these irregular cases. You’ve fired most of your experienced staff that knows how to handle these situations, so inexperienced, overworked staff is stuck trying to sort out the mess. Of course, because they have employees’ livelihoods in their hands, some of us are not as understanding as others, and I am sure they suffered verbal abuse in addition to the pressure they were under to perform and get the work done.
Many cracked, and I don’t blame them one bit because I have been in a similar situation with one of my previous jobs.
In the meantime, that work is still not getting done.
We’ve had to open up satellite offices to get things back on track and we’re still not anywhere close.
Do you remember those savings that were promised? I think it’s safe to say that they have been wiped out.
And what to say about all of us affected? Think about it: if it’s the country’s largest single employer, and there are all of these people who are underpaid or not being paid at all, that’s a significant amount of money that’s not being spent in the local and national economy. People are putting off purchasing cars and homes, doing renovations, going on vacation…
I know that there is a certain amount of contempt for civil servants, but if we go under, that means a lot of others aren’t doing as well either.
Brass Tax for Us
My problems first started happening in 2015, following a Leave Without Pay due to injury on duty. (Without wanting to get into the details, it was a similar environment that Pay Centre staff are working in: an abundance of work coupled with a shortage of staff, dealing with clients in crisis, and a toxic work environment.)
I had taken a Leave Without Pay to cover the 6 weeks I was put off work by my doctor. This request was not processed until after my return to work, so I was being paid all of that time. It took a month for my request to be processed.
Now, because I am the primary breadwinner and my spouse’s work is uncertain, I asked for my pay to be recovered at a reduced rate, and this request was approved by my manager. (I had switched jobs at that point, and my manager was incredibly supportive over all of this.)
I contacted the Pay Centre to ensure that everything about my process was done correctly – that was back when you could actually contact the Pay Centre directly. When you tried to call the Pay Centre at the time, it was the luck of the draw as to how knowledgeable the Pay Advisor was. I’d get a different piece of advice every time I called, but I followed all of their instructions to the letter and was confirmed that I was good to go.
I had savings, we had credit, and all I could really ask was to be kept informed of what would come next.
I woke up on pay day at the end of November 2015 without anything in my account. My pay was being garnished at 100%, despite all of the paperwork and approvals having been provided and received, no notice, no explanation, nothing.
I went three periods without pay, right before Christmas, and was offered an Emergency Salary Advance (ESA) to tide me over until we figured out what was going on. What they didn’t tell me at the time was that there is no provision for recovery if ESAs under financial hardship, as I had been expected to receive with the original recovery.
This was all before Phoenix went live.
We discovered at this point that I was expecting our third child (we call her Rosebud), who is now 10 months old. I’ve been dealing with this stuff since she was conceived. When I type it out like that, it’s incomprehensible that things haven’t been fixed and are only getting worse.
In 2016, I was able to get in touch with them about the ESA recovery and was told that they would recover it as soon as possible.
I also contacted our “Pay Transformation” unit, which is a unit they developed to help liaise with the Pay Centre on our behalf and advocate for really messed up pay cases. They audited my pay file and discovered that in addition to all of these issues, the Pay Centre had paid me twice for the same period at the end of October; that was deposited to my account at the end of December 2015 and would also need to be recovered.
Phoenix was deployed in February 2016, and my department was part of that first batch.
I waited patiently for them to start recovering my pay and to get my file squared away. It was April before this happened, so I had three pay periods where I did not get paid, along with a partial pay mid-May. I think that covered the amount for the ESA, and I think the overpayment discovered by the Pay Transformation team is still outstanding.
At this point, I had bigger fish to fry.
I decided to be proactive with my application for maternity leave. It was duly completed, approved, and transferred to the pay centre in early April. They acknowledged having received it on April 28, 2016.
My due date was June 24, and my maternity leave started, for EI purposes, on June 20.
I received my regular pay on the following pay day. And the next. And the one after that.
At that point, you couldn’t even contact them anymore.
All the way until November, until someone finally processed my file.
I’d been carefully tucking away each pay, and we’d been surviving as best we could on my EI, Hubby’s second job and his teaching. That’s 5 months.
I had a few weeks left on a previous EI claim, which converted to maternity benefits. When that ran out, I was able to get an interim Record of Employment (ROE) by having a nice conversation with the agent at Service Canada:
Agent: You need to wait for your employer to issue your Record of Employment.
Me: Heh. You’re a fellow civil servant, right?
Agent: Of course.
Me: So you know what Phoenix is?
Agent: … yes.
Me: How long do you think it will take them to process my file and produce the required ROE?
Agent: *thinking about it momentarily* If you have a pay stub, we can issue your ROE.
When they finally did analyze my file, they calculated an overpayment (naturally), and I had to send this cheque off right before Christmas 2016:
I mailed it off on December 21, I believe, by the time I actually remembered to bring it with me during my outings. It was cashed less than a week later, and that includes 4 days off due to Saturday the 24th, Christmas, Boxing Day, and the weekday statutory holiday on Tuesday the 28th.
I had done all of this to avoid tax implications.
And yet, my T4 is still incorrect and my Child Care Benefit (CCB) will be diminished by $200 as a result come July. I’ve filed a request for adjustment but who knows what will come of it?
Thankfully, since then, my pay has been mostly okay. I say mostly because they are over-taxing me on my maternity top-up (so I get $100 less per pay than I have received in the past) and they are paying me my bilingual bonus (which is another $800 I will need to pay back at some point).
But I am terrified about what will happen when I return to work on June 19.
I’m not alone in these experiences.
I’m not even special in them. So many of my friends and colleagues have been “Phoenixed,” and one of them recently discovered she had been Phoenixed by typo – it now appears she has been “struck off strength” and she has no idea how long it will take to rectify.
In any other industry, the employee could go to the courts to compel the employer to pay them in a timely fashion. We are not governed by provincial standards, but by the Canadian Labour Code, and most lawyers won’t touch the case with a 10 foot pole.
There is a class action lawsuit* that was initiated in Québec, and they are trying to include all affected civil servants, but it is my impression that they will have to limit it to all unrepresented employees (such as casual workers and students) because we are supposed to have our unions intervene on our behalf. It’s part of our collective agreement. Between trying to get our contracts settled, and not receiving their dues due to Phoenix, they are also being stretched rather thin. I know that they initiated a lawsuit but put it in abeyance in order to gather information from the government and assist in individual cases.
*I can translate upon request.
People are scared to take on assignments or try to get new jobs for fear of messing around with their pay. Those are economic and opportunity losses for them, and those are spots that are hard to fill for managers.
It’s a clusterfuck of epic proportions
…and that’s the first and last time I expect to use profanity here.
No one knows how to fix this, and I think we, as a family, are doing the best we can considering the circumstances.
That being said, I am so worried for the future, and this is a big part of why I started this blog, and why I am questioning everything about employment and finance.
If you stuck with me this far, you are a rock star.
I’ll break down why going back to work scares me in the next instalment.