“You don’t know if you’re going to get paid, and that’s always in the forefront of your mind,” says Ryan, a leading seaman with the Canadian Coast Guard. “When you’re doing something, especially dealing with search and rescue or life and death situations or you’re working with machinery where there’s a potential for injury or death, you have to have your mind focused on your work, and when there’s something else always taking up part of your attention it’s hard to block it out.”
Since the much-maligned and error-prone system was rolled out last year, Ryan, like tens of thousands of federal government employees, has experienced multiple pay periods where he received no money, and some when he’s been overpaid. Other public-sector employees have experienced not being paid enough.
On Thursday outside St. John’s South-Mount Pearl MP Seamus O’Regan’s office on Topsail Road, Ryan and more than 200 other federal employees took part in a noon-hour rally to urge a boycott of National Public-Service Workers Week and to pressure Ottawa to do everything within its power to fix the system.
Jeannie Baldwin, regional executive vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) for the Atlantic region, says repeated conversations with government officials are falling on deaf ears or they simply don’t understand the issues.
“We’re hoping that we’re going to put pressure on this government, by saying, ‘Enough is enough, give us some timelines, fix it, stop hiring temporary agencies, hire people to do the work, keep the satellite offices going.’”
The IBM system was unveiled as part of a Conservative government plan to replace the previous regional pay system with a centralized system that would be based in Miramichi, N.B. It meant reducing staff numbers from 2,400 advisers across Canada to 550, resulting in an expected saving of $70 million annually.
It was launched under the current Liberal government last February and the first 34 federal departments noticed problems almost immediately. PSAC pleaded with Ottawa to halt the transition that would affect the remaining 67 sectors, but the government went ahead and did so anyway and the problems have only grown in scope and severity.
Baldwin says she takes calls every day from employees who have been affected by the system in one way or another. One such person was a student who wasn’t able to pay his rent.
“He told the landlord, ‘I didn’t get paid,’ and the landlord said, ‘Listen, you work with the federal government, don’t go trying to pull that one on me.’
“He had to get a letter from our regional director to say there’s a problem with Phoenix and he never got paid. If he never got that letter he would have been evicted.”
There have also been stories of employees in Quebec facing foreclosure on their homes as they wait for pay after returning from sick leave.
While employees are suffering the fallout, Ryan says the current administration and the Conservatives are busy playing a blame game in Ottawa.
“It’s time for the government to take ownership of it. You can’t just blame it on the previous administration,” he says.
“You knew what you were getting into, you should have been set up for it and been ready to handle it or run it parallel with the old system before you wiped it out. That could have solved an awful lot of problems.”
Solving the problem won’t be cheap, and costs have already started to mount. In addition to a combined $140 million in two years of savings that won’t occur and $50 million spent last year to mitigate problems, in late May a further $142 million over two years was earmarked to hire 200 temporary workers to staff the centre in Miramichi. The federal government has already re-hired 300 employees who had been laid off by the previous administration before the system was even rolled out.
The new money will also be used to extend the longevity of satellite offices and to hire compensation and technical staff to process recently signed collective agreements.