A continuing legacy of anguish

October 02, 2023
From the pension desk.
Federal Retirees surveyed members on their experiences with the Phoenix pay system. Close to 1,300 responded, nearly half of whom had been overpaid or underpaid.

On Feb. 24, 2016, the first phase of the Phoenix pay system rolled out to 34 federal departments and 120,000 employees. On April 21, the second phase added 67 departments and 170,000 employees. Soon, it came to light that one-third of employees had an error in their paycheques. By December 2017, the backlog at the pay centre exceeded 600,000 transactions awaiting processing. This affected employees and retirees who would find themselves waiting years for severance pay and other adjustments.

Seven years later, the issues persist, plaguing thousands of our members.

In December 2022, Federal Retirees sent out a survey to the members who had joined since Phoenix was implemented to ask them about their experiences, their stories — to understand how they had been and continued to be affected by Phoenix. More than 1,300 responded. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents said they experienced an issue related to Phoenix.

These issues were wide ranging, though the most common ones were regular pay (46 per cent had an issue with being properly paid and of those, half were underpaid and the balance were overpaid) while 38 per cent reported their severance had not been paid out. Other issues included deductions (25 per cent) and pension calculations (21 per cent), acting pay (21 per cent) and group insurance (4 per cent.) Slightly more than a quarter of respondents (27 per cent) reported being contacted to resolve an overpayment after retirement. Many participants (28 per cent) reported having “other issues,” which included unpaid overtime, shift premium issues, or leave-without-pay issues. There were 150 custom responses — too many to list here.

Members feel betrayed. From issues that began while they were still employees, to those that have lingered for half a decade or more, they feel a serious breach of trust with their former employer. They don‘t trust their calculations, they don‘t trust the letters they‘d received from them, they don‘t trust them to pay them properly. Confidence and faith in their employer has been shattered.

When the Phoenix pay system was planned, the hope was that it would reduce a burden. It would simplify a complex compensation approach and provide the government with some cost-cutting measures. Careless decisions in planning and implementation led to the initial issues, but that we continue to be in the midst of issues, seven years later, is egregious.

The problems are wide-ranging and the stories are heart-breaking. So many new retirees delayed or abandoned vacations, renovations and help for their children to afford a home. All the things we dream of in retirement were replaced with stress and anxiety.

Some members had to leave the public service as they dealt with issues that were already hard (compassionate care leave, leave related to critical illness, medical retirement, etc.) and found their stress compounded by a Phoenix issue, adding financial stress in one of the most difficult times of their lives.

That it has been seven years and that these issues still linger is unacceptable. No other Canadian employer would be allowed to be so cavalier about their active and former employees‘ compensation.

The damage that has been done will take a long time to heal, but the government could begin repairing that relationship by addressing these issues with compassion and speed.


This article appeared in the fall 2023 issue of Sage magazine as part of our “From the Pension Desk” series, which offers answers to our members’ most common questions about their pensions. While you’re here, why not download the full issue and peruse our back issues too?