Unions respond to Phoenix pay system

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Thousands of federal government employees, from summer students to managers, have been underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all since the government began using the Phoenix pay system in 2016. Justin Trudeau's Liberals implemented the payroll system introduced by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, despite warnings about potential problems.

Past and current federal employees rabble has spoken to in recent weeks all express deep conviction for their work. They feel betrayed by an employer who does not pay them properly or, in their view, admit responsibility for the problem. Some expressed frustration with the unions that represent them and wonder what more could be done to solve the situation.

In this seriesrabble.ca takes a broader look at Phoenix: the background of the problem; the people affected by it; the responses from unions, and what solutions may be possible.

Federal employees who have not been paid properly since the government started using the Phoenix pay system in February 2016 aren't just mad at their employer. Some are also frustrated at the unions that represent them. They think the unions should be more aggressive in pressuring the government to fix the growing problems and provide more clarity to their members about what's happening. They say information from unions has been slow and vague, at times. Some want the unions to pursue legal action; others suggest strikes.

Union leaders appreciate members' frustrations -- representatives are often federal employees themselves. But they say their options are limited. At times, filing grievances on behalf of members may be all they can do.

"We're in a Catch-22," said Vanessa Miller, national vice-president for CEIU BC, a member of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). She's been overpaid herself, and although she's never received a paycheque for $0, she did get one for $3.50. "We're filing grievances because it's important to say that, 'This isn't OK,' but we're also having to manage members' expectations that this isn’t likely to be resolved through the grievance process."

"It's a balancing act," said Emmanuelle Tremblay, president of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, the union representing many policy analysts and economists. Filing more grievances may be helpful, but it could also be harmful, she said. Members want to know that the union is working for them, and it is, but "some of those actions are not so visible because it’s ongoing communication with the employer," she said.

The unions were critical about Phoenix before the government implemented the system. They're still raising their concerns, union leaders say.

Unions have been assisting members affected by Phoenix in various ways. Union leaders participate in a committee with government officials devoted solely to finding solutions to the problem. Last December, several unions secured a court order requiring the government to maintain a team of employees dedicated solely to helping federal employees who are beginning paternity, maternity or disability leave.

Government updates on Phoenix say 95 per cent of transactions related to paternity, maternity and disability leaves are resolved within the service standard time of 20 days.

Unions have also been instrumental in making sure more compensation officers have been hired to help people harmed by Phoenix; ensuring members are reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses and helping workers access help with their taxes.

Chris Aylward, PSAC's national executive vice-president, said the union recently helped negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the Treasury Board that would see compensation advisors receive more overtime pay and a recruitment and attention bonus, as well as have the Treasury Board review their job classification and job descriptions.

The union is doing the best it can to communicate with members, although he said it could have posted more regular updates at the beginning.

"Everything (workers) got so far is because unions were at the table asking for it," said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union representing scientists and professionals in several government departments. PIPSC was not involved in last year's court order.

Unions have organized demonstrations across the country, and encouraged members to contact their Members of Parliament with their problems. But members need to be active. Tremblay said she thinks doing demonstrations during workdays could be helpful, but with approximately 13,000 members, the union isn't very large. At times, only a few dozen people show up to demonstrations.

"People are so fed up that they don't even have energy to go to the streets," she said.

Even if workers did show up, strikes would be illegal. Unions aren't in a position to strike because of signed collective agreements. Not all government departments had signed agreements when problems with Phoenix began. But even for those workers, strikes would be illegal because issues related to the pay system aren't things to be negotiated at the bargaining table, said Aylward.

Phoenix has already made its way into negotiations for at least one union. Earlier this month, the Canadian Merchant Service Guild presented its latest offer, on behalf of Government Ships' Officers. The offer includes payroll audit reconciliation to address issues for officers affected by Phoenix.

The government rejected the offer and the union is beginning to prepare for arbitration, a September 14 update says.  

Strike action may not be possible for other reasons. Government employees are extremely dedicated. People who work in the military or on border patrol can't stop doing their jobs. Earlier this month, CAPE released a survey of its members' experiences with Phoenix. Forty-seven per cent of respondents said their mental well-being had been affected by Phoenix, and fewer than 10 per cent of respondents said they'd sought medical assistance for it.

This doesn't surprise Tremblay; she said workers hesitate to take time off when they're sick, regardless of the pay problems.

Aylward agrees.

He said he doesn't know of any other group of employees who would continue to show up to work even if they weren't getting paid.

"Our members simply won't walk off the job over this," he said.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

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