With no end in sight, it’s time for a national inquiry into the Phoenix pay fiasco

By Chris Aylward, PSAC’s national president

The average Canadian could be forgiven if February 28 doesn’t hold any special meaning. But for hundreds of thousands of federal public service workers and retirees, the 28th marks the sixth anniversary of the Phoenix pay system disaster.

More than 300,000 workers – Canada’s largest workforce by far – haven’t forgotten, and they certainly haven’t forgiven.

Every paycheque is a fresh reminder that the government still can’t figure out how to pay their workers correctly or on time. In fact, since Phoenix was launched in 2016, there hasn’t been a single pay period without significant errors. Not one.

The early days of Phoenix were cruel, chaotic, and often catastrophic. Thousands of people were underpaid or weren’t paid at all for months at a time. Some lost their homes, their cars, their savings, and their mental health. People’s entire livelihoods were completely ruined.

Today, the most serious pay issues are thankfully, for the most part, behind federal workers. But what has taken its place is something less severe, but  far more insidious.

For many workers, it feels like death by a thousand cuts. It’s small, frustrating pay issues, paycheque after paycheque, that make you question if it’s an error or just your imagination. It’s the hours spent on hold week after week to figure out what’s wrong. Waiting months for a follow-up – years for a resolution. It’s retirees who left the public service as far back as 2016 who are still waiting for their pay issues to be fixed so that they can start the next chapter of their lives.

There’s no doubt that Phoenix has been a national disgrace with enough blame to go around: whipped up by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and rushed out the door half-baked under Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.

We may never see the true scope and impact of this unmitigated disaster on workers and taxpayers  unless a national public inquiry is launched. How else can we hold the government accountable and make sure the same mistakes will never be repeated?

Six years after the start of this mess, one would think the government would have a concrete plan to end their employees’ pay issues and fulfil the most basic role of an employer – to pay their staff correctly and on time.

Unfortunately, that plan remains elusive. Worst still, there remain 141,000 Phoenix pay issues in the backlog, which has been steadily rising since the pandemic started, thousands dating all the way back to 2016. Think about that for a second. If a young family had pay problems while expecting their first baby, their child could now be learning to read in the first grade, while their pay issues remain unresolved.

And there’s no end in sight for federal workers, with the government still many years away from launching their next pay system.

The only solution on the table right now – and make no mistake, it’s a stop-gap measure – is to hire as many compensation advisors as it takes to reduce pay issues, fix them as they happen, and eliminate the backlog of cases once and for all.

But in the face of such a low bar, even that appears to be too difficult for a government that has repeatedly refused to do what’s needed to make this right.

The auditor general’s scathing 2017 report on Phoenix, called it an ‘incomprehensible failure’ and years later the government has not provided any more answers, and nobody has been held accountable. We do not even know which, if any, of the most damning problems raised by the report have been addressed.

We do know that as thousands of public servants continued to struggle with pay problems, executives in the department overseeing the Phoenix pay system were paid millions in performance pay bonuses.

In the face of all this, unions like PSAC will keep fighting to make sure workers are compensated for the ongoing hardships caused by Phoenix, and we will push for short- and medium-term solutions like hiring more compensation advisors to stop the bleeding.

But the one thing we can’t do on our own is get the answers we need to stop something like this from ever happening again.

Only a national public inquiry can shine a light on how we ended up here, and what it will take to make workers whole again.

Workers deserve that peace of mind, and Canadian taxpayers deserve the accountability.


February 25, 2022