Canadian unions seek damages after axing of Phoenix pay system

By on 02/04/2018
Parliament Hill in Ottawa, where many federal government departments are headquartered

The Canadian federal government has opened talks with unions on compensating public servants for the stress caused by the beleaguered Phoenix pay system.

In a joint letter submitted in mid-February, 17 public sector unions called on the government to pay damages to federal employees who have suffered hardship due to the catalogue of errors generated by the computerised pay system over the past two years.

The Trudeau administration indicated in its 2018 budget, which was presented to the House of Commons on 27 February, that it was open to compensating public servants for “the real mental and emotional stress” caused by Phoenix, as reported by CBC.

Cash compensation

Talks between the government and public sector unions over damages “have been advancing” since the budget was announced, the Public Service Alliance of Canada said in a statement on 15 March. Compensation is being sought for “the stress, the time spent dealing with and the catastrophic losses caused by Phoenix pay problems”, it said.

PSAC president Robyn Benson said: “For two years, our members have lived in fear every pay day – they have had their lives turned upside down – and through it all they have continued to show up to work and deliver the services Canadians depend on. An agreement on damages won’t solve everything, but it is an important part of making our members whole.”

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada confirmed in a statement last week that unions are “moving forward on negotiations with the government” for compensation or damages. However, neither the unions nor Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), which is responsible for Phoenix, have revealed details of the talks.

Bulging backlog

Robyn Benson, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (Image courtesy: Public Service Alliance of Canada).

The move comes as monthly figures published on a PSPC “dashboard” show that the backlog of pay “transactions beyond the normal workload” dealt with by the federal government rose steadily from 265,000 in June 2017 to a peak of 384,000 in January 2018, when the total number of outstanding transactions reached 633,000.

In February, transactions beyond the normal workload fell by 4,000 to 380,000, leaving 626,000 outstanding transactions. “While the exact number fluctuates daily, it is estimated that more than half of public servants are experiencing some form of pay issue,” the dashboard states, adding that “a continual decline” in the number of outstanding cases is not expected until “later this spring”.

Throughout the nine months covered by the dashboard, the government has failed to meet its target of dealing with 95% of cases inside the “service standard”, with the proportion achieved ranging from 35 to 60%.

In the 2018 budget, the government committed to spending CAN$436.9m (US$338m) over six years to fix the Phoenix system and sort out the backlog of pay and tax problems, as well as CAN$16m (US$12m) over the next two years looking for a replacement for the programme. Phoenix was meant to generate CAN$70m (US$54m) per year in savings for taxpayers.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist with more than 16 years’ experience on daily newspapers in the UK and Hong Kong. With a core specialism of education, she also has extensive experience of general news and has covered other public sector beats including environment, transport and planning. She worked on the South China Morning Post for seven years, serving as education editor, assistant education editor and education reporter as well as senior reporter on the Sunday Morning Post. She has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian, TES Global (formerly The Times Educational Supplement) and the BBC. She qualified as a newspaper journalist with the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Essex.

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