Mr. Speaker, I will be splitting my time with my most excellent colleague the member for Windsor—Tecumseh.
As the member of Parliament for Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke, the view of this Phoenix pay crisis looks quite different from what we are hearing from the Liberals when we are actually on the ground. My office has been inundated with cases from federal employees whose lives have been turned upside down because of the Phoenix pay system implemented by the Liberal government.
Despite objections from public service employees and their union representatives, the Liberal government decided to roll out the Phoenix pay system in 2016, knowing full well that there remained a host of unresolved issues with the program, and as we have learned, they did so without looking at the case of Queensland where the government of the state bought a similar system from IBM and had already abandoned that system before the Liberals put Phoenix in gear. In fact, in 2013, a Queensland commission of inquiry put out a report detailing how a pay system that was supposed to cost the Queensland government $6 million ended up costing it $30 million to purchase and $1.2 billion to fix. The Premier of Queensland called this “the worst public policy failure in the state's history”.
Why did the Liberals proceed when information about this cautionary tale was so easily available? Why, when it took the Queensland government just four months to get a comprehensive fix in place, albeit a very expensive one, two years later the Liberal government is still saying only that the situation remains unacceptable and it will do various things?
According to data that the member for Jonquière has been able to get from the government, 78% of the 22,375 federal employees in British Columbia have experienced pay problems since the Liberals decided to implement this system.
In my riding alone, over 1,000 federal employees have been overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all. Many have been forced to max out their credit cards, dip into retirement savings, or incur late fees because they are waiting on their hard-earned paycheques. This is having impacts on real people in every community in my riding. I have asked some of those affected if I could share their stories publicly today. It is a stark contrast to what we just heard from the last speaker saying all the wonderful things the Liberals are going to do. They have not fixed these problems.
One of those people who agreed to speak publicly is Dayna Holley. She moved from Salmon Arm to Esquimalt for a new and exciting job as an addictions counsellor at CFB Esquimalt in March 2016. As a social worker who was considering a master's degree, this was an incredible opportunity to be of service and also seemed worth the move to a more expensive city.
The problems started as soon as she arrived. Within six weeks she realized that she was being underpaid hundreds of dollars on each paycheque and she was not receiving health, dental, or any of the other benefits she was supposed to be getting as a civilian employee. She began to struggle to pay for housing and living costs after moving to one of the most expensive places to live in the entire country. She also put her plan of enrolling in further education on hold as she had no assurances she would ever be able to save the money to pay the tuition fees.
Nineteen months later, Dayna finally received the nearly $18,000 owed to her. Meanwhile, fellow employees had quit and their work had been added to her own workload, and her department was struggling to recruit to fill the vacant positions.
Dayna's story is emblematic of hundreds of others in Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke. It is important that as their member of Parliament, I do everything in my power to help those affected. I hope by bringing their stories here today in this debate we will finally get the attention of the Liberal government and prompt some real action to solve this problem.
A Service Canada employee from my riding also agreed to share her story. Her name is Rosanne. Rosanne lives with her retired husband in Saanich and has been working for Service Canada as, ironically, a benefits officer for 17 years. She was thinking about retiring, so in 2016, she enrolled in a pathway to retirement program that was supposed to allow her to work for three days a week for her final two years of employment. That is when the problems began.
Very quickly she noticed that Phoenix was continuing to pay her at her full-time rate. Then, without warning, she received a paycheque with almost nothing on it as the system tried to collect the gross overpayment all at once, even more money than she had actually been overpaid. From one pay period to the next, she never knew what she was going to receive, and this in the months when she was trying to prepare for her retirement.
Rosanne was supposed to retire by the end of this month but she became concerned about finalizing the process as she knows that would put her at the end of the list of hundreds of thousands of Phoenix cases across the country, and that she might not get the pay that she is still owed before she actually retires. Today, I have to say that I do not know what decision she made.
Rosanne's story is emblematic of hundreds of others. Many have fallen behind in their rent or mortgage payments. Some have even had to quit because they could not continue to pay the bills while not being paid for work they were doing. Others had to pull their kids out of post-secondary education programs because they could no longer afford the tuition fees as they had not been paid what they had earned.
Today we hear that there are all kinds of provisions being made and that those people can apply for assistance. However, on the ground, that is not happening.
Another federal civil servant who has agreed to share her story is Nicole Gervais. She has been working for Service Canada as a benefits officer for old age security for 27 years. As a single parent, she has tried to work hard, manage her finances well, and was able to get a mortgage on a house in Sooke. In 2016, she agreed to take on a higher role at work temporarily. However, instead of getting a bump in pay, the Phoenix pay system actually decreased her pay and removed the bonus she received for being bilingual. From one pay period to the next, she never knew what she would receive. Every month she had to decide which to pay, her mortgage or her utility bills. Planned family vacations were cancelled.
Eventually, Nicole's daughter had to quit her languages program at Camosun College. Even though her daughter had a part-time job and she and Nicole were trying to make it work, they decided they could not keep going into debt if they did not know when or if they would ever be able to repay that debt. “It was a very difficult discussion to have with my daughter” Nicole said, “but we both agreed that first and foremost we had to keep the roof over our heads.”
I do not think anyone who has been working in the public service for 27 years should have to be asking themselves these questions. It is clear that we are losing the talent and experience of many who are not able or who are prepared to survive the financial crises imposed on them by the Phoenix pay system.
Leroy Wade lives in Colwood and has had been working for the Government of Canada for more than 13 years. In 2016, he switched jobs and began working as a civilian employee for DND. However, Phoenix never changed his status. Not only was he never sure if he was being properly paid at his new rate, he was no longer receiving pay stubs, so he could not even check. Meanwhile, he never received a $7,400 transfer pay he was supposed to get.
Leroy told me, “All the guys I was working with were facing similar problems....We would spend hours on the phone trying to reach a pay advisor instead of doing our jobs. And if you ever got a hold of someone they would pass it on to someone else or not be able to help you. It was like chasing a ghost.” Eventually, Leroy had enough and quit. “I have a family and bills. I couldn’t deal with their nonsense any longer. Who knows if I will ever see the money they still own me,” he said.
Dayna, Rosanne, Nicole, and Leroy's stories are emblematic of hundreds of others. I have hundreds of stories from lighthouse technicians, DFO and DND employees, and Service Canada staff all trying to continue to serve Canadians while their lives have been upended because of Phoenix.
In 2016, the government claimed that the Phoenix pay system was going to save taxpayers $70 million a year. Now the minister responsible for this file has not ruled out the possibility that the costs of this fiasco will surpass $1 billion, and we still have no timeline from the government on when it will be fixed. We continue to see new problems arise every week in my constituency, new cases coming through the door.
It is not like this has been solved and we just have to take care of the old cases. New cases crop up each and every week.
Last November, I took three particularly egregious cases from DND civilian employees directly to the Minister of National Defence at the national defence committee. I was asking him to act to protect morale among DND employees, to end the time they were wasting on the phone trying to get a hold of someone to fix their pay, and to forestall impacts on retention and recruitment. After several months of hounding, including a question in question period last month, I finally managed to a minister's attention. That minister promised those three civilian DND employees would soon have their issues resolved, including a single parent who owed more than $20,000 in back pay. The minister's office then called my office and asked me to give it all my priority cases. My staff laughed. We have 690 cases, so the minister was given the 12 worst cases. None of those have been solved yet.
What is apparent is that this case-by-case approach is not one that will ever be able to address the over 1,000 more cases pending in my riding in a timely manner. It is time the Liberals recognize their failure and, in collaboration with employees and their unions, consider a plan B that either allocates significant additional resources to pay employees properly or moves to a different payroll system that does include Phoenix.
In the meantime, my constituency office will continue to do what it can for individual cases and the New Democrats will continue to demand that the Liberal government apologize to public servants in a meaningful way, not just with a few nice words but with actions that will help fix the disruption of their lives, compensate them for their losses, and take action to finally fix this debacle.