It’s the first major snowfall in Ottawa. Elgin Street looks picturesque with blustering snowflakes, Christmas lights atop lamp posts, and shoppers ambling down the sidewalk, shopping bags in tow.
Sierra Gardner-Williams sits in a café with her hands wrapped around a hot coffee mug. For her, the holiday bustle is a reminder that her Christmas will be different this year. Gardner-Williams is one of 18,000 public servants still affected by the Phoenix pay system.
“My family is spending Christmas in Southeast Asia,” says Gardner-Williams, a student contract worker for the government. “I had a ticket to go but things were tricky and tighter, so I decided to postpone.”
The holidays are supposed to be a time of merriment and indulgence, a way to celebrate the hard work of the year. But for these Government of Canada employees, this holiday season may be more akin to Charlie Brown’s.
Initially, 82,000 civil servants were affected by the faulty pay system. That number has been whittled down to 18,000, but these employees are still missing significant amounts of their pay, forcing their holiday budgets to shrink, among other things.
Gardner-Williams started her contract at the end of August. Her first paycheque came about four weeks later, at the end of September, and that’s when she noticed that it was a lot less than it was supposed to be.
“It was a four-month contract, and they have different levels of pay,” she explains. Even though she was set to be paid at level four, Gardner-Williams said she ended up being paid at level one. “So while I’m still getting paid,” she says, “I’m being paid a lot less than I should be.”
As she looks down at her coffee, she describes the situation as “frustrating.” Gardner-Williams has filed two formal complaints with Phoenix now, but hasn’t heard anything back. No confirmation number, no email — nothing.
She hopes to go to Southeast Asia at the end of her next semester, if she’s been paid by then. “When you have to go back to school next semester,” she says, “that takes priority.”
Gardner-Williams is not alone. A man from the Ottawa-Gatineau region, who prefers to remain anonymous because of his position in his department, says his Christmas this year will also be sparse.
“I like to decorate,” he says. “Now I won’t put any decorations in my house. I won’t buy a tree.”
He doesn’t think he’ll have the estimated $8,000 he’s owed before Christmas.
He was told at first that his case was listed as “high priority.” Now that’s changed, and his file has been bumped. He’s contacted the Phoenix call centres numerous times, but says he hasn’t gotten any new information.
“You don’t know what to do, and you don’t have any answers,” he says, “and that’s what upsets me the most.”
He’s been living off his credit card. He recently purchased a house, thinking he was finally going to make steady money with a government job. Now, his parents are making his house payments.
Marie Lemay, the deputy minister in charge of the Phoenix pay cases, said last week at a news conference that the government is still working on resolving those 18,000 public servants’ cases.
“The remaining cases are extremely complex and require a number of time-consuming manual calculations,” she said.
Lemay also spoke about the call centre problems. She admitted that although pay requests are meant to be processed within 20 days, they are only meeting this standard 20 to 30 per cent of the time.
The stress of not getting answers is taking a toll on some public servants. Another worker, who also prefers to remain anonymous, explains, “Even though one of the ministers said it was fine to speak to the media, I’m not sure it would be well received at the lower levels. I definitely feel it would label you as a troublemaker.” She fears she’ll lose her job for speaking out, which she can’t afford to let happen.
Holiday plans are much leaner than in past years for her, her husband, and their children.
“We are living on cash advances from credit cards,” she says. “I have a few close friends I have exchanged with for many years, and I had to tell them I couldn’t afford to give them presents this year, which I found hugely embarrassing.”
She and her husband are doing everything they can to keep things normal for their children. “My husband and I aren’t buying ourselves anything,” the mother of three says, “because we want to make sure there’s at least a few things for our kids to open.”
Similar stories are playing out on social media. One user tweets to the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, “@judy_foote should I cancel xmas?”
Another user tweets, “I’m just going to go ahead and cancel Xmas for my family. No pay in two months.. no end in sight.”
While there are still so many public servants affected by Phoenix pay problems, some employees expressed the sentiment that there are people who still have it worse than they do.
“On Friday, I just went to the parking lot and cried in my car,” the mother of three says, “but my situation isn’t nearly as dire as others.”
Header photo by John Talbot – Creative Commons (Flickr)