Episode 4: I Got Phoenixed


The Canadian government's botched payroll transformation has not only cost workers their pay, but also job opportunities, marriages and houses. Three former federal workers share their stories of being underpaid or overpaid by thousands of dollars. 

Episode 4 - Timestamps

(00.00) Jennifer Carr
(05:58) The credit card game
(08:54) Blair Winger
(12:27) Colin Cameron
(16:04) Deciphering a Phoenix paystub
(19:00) The death of Linda Deschâtelets
(20:08) Canada Revenue Agency statement
(22:00) Phoenix boils over…


A public servant holds a sign imploring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to resolve problems with the Phoenix pay system, during a protest outside the Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council in Ottawa on Oct. 12, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Since being rushed to go live in 2016, the Canadian government's botched payroll transformation has not only cost workers their pay, but also job opportunities, marriages and houses. One victim of the Phoenix pay system’s problems is Jennifer Carr, a former air quality engineer in the Department of National Defence. Carr’s part-time salary and disability insurance were disrupted by Phoenix issues, leaving her with no income while she supported three children as a single mother. Carr says her attempts to get answers from the pay centre were fruitless. “I am crying in my living room, trying to get anybody just to give me something so that I could pay my bills,” she says.

Another former worker says he has lost about $17,000 due to Phoenix. Retired firefighter Blair Winger suspects his pay was calculated at the wrong rate, resulting in clawbacks on his paycheques. Winger reached out to the pay centre about the mistake, but staff rejected his offer to explain the issue. “It’s got to the point where it was causing me so much stress that, frankly, I had given up,” he says.

Colin Cameron faced a different kind of problem. The former defence scientist says he was overpaid by about $35,000 after he left the public service. Despite several interactions with pay centre staff, Cameron says they haven’t been able to settle on the correct amount that he owes the government. “It’s become this convoluted, torturous nightmare,” he says.

These are just a few stories from thousands of federal workers who have been affected by problems with Phoenix. The pay system’s failure even played a role in a death. Eight years later, public servants continue to suffer from the consequences of a rushed and poorly managed payroll overhaul.

credits phoenixed

Phoenixed: Inside Canada’s payroll disaster is produced by the Global Payroll Association and Storythings.

  • CEO, GPA: Melanie Pizzey
  • Reported and hosted by: Glen McGregor
  • Produced and edited by: Kevin Sexton
  • Research and fact-checking by: Tobin Ng
  • Sound design by: Xavier Paradis
  • Executive Producer, Storythings: Grace Dobush
  • Director, Storythings: Hugh Garry
  • Project management by Lyndsay Borgonon
  • Legal review by Ryan Keller
  • Art direction by Darren Garrett


Glen McGregor, host: In late 2015, Jennifer Carr got an email.

Jennifer Carr: I had gotten this really strange message from HR telling my boss to assign me up or get these papers ready. And my boss had no idea what was happening. We tried to go back and ask some questions, and there were no answers for us. Nobody had answers.

McGregor: At the time, she was working as a public servant in the Department of National Defence.

Carr: I had a workplace injury. So I had taken about a year and a half off, and I had gone back to the department part time on a graduated return to work. The cryptic nature of the email was, starting on this day, you're going to have to fill in timesheets. And so my boss was, “Well, you know, she's a part-time worker, she’s not a casual, like, she has a position. Why would you be filling out timesheets?” It didn't make sense to him. And then, of course, nothing, no information. 

I was fortunate to be in that first cohort in February 2016 that was moved over to Phoenix, and my problems started right away. I was not paid. I was not paid for three months, you know, and everywhere I turned and looked, you know, trying to get people to figure out what was happening, nobody had a clue.

McGregor: I’m Glen McGregor. I’ve been an investigative reporter in Ottawa for 25 years. This is Phoenixed: Inside Canada’s payroll disaster, produced by the Global Payroll Association and Storythings.

Blair Winger: I said, “If I could just come in and talk to you, I could explain this.” And they got very upset with me and said that they did not need my assistance in figuring out my pay.

Colin Cameron: I got a very nasty and aggressive letter from them last September saying I owe them $85,000.

Carr: People were delaying things like having children, they were delaying buying that house. 

McGregor: “Episode 4, I Got Phoenixed.” By the end of 2016, cases like Jennifer Carr’s had created a backlog: hundreds of thousands of complaints from workers about incorrect pay. Some of those cases still are not resolved, 8 years after the rollout of Phoenix. The impact of the botched transition included lost pay, lost houses, lost job opportunities — and even played a role in a death. I spoke to some of the people who were directly affected. 

People like Jennifer Carr. When Phoenix was implemented, she was working for the Department of National Defence as an air quality engineer for Canada's fleet of submarines. Because of her disability and her graduated return to work, she wasn’t working standard hours. And when the payroll system changed, it wasn’t clear how to deal with it. 

Carr: So before, you know, I would just fill in my leave, the hours that I didn't work, we would put it in the system and I would be continually paid.

McGregor: With Phoenix, there was a new process.

Carr: They wanted me to fill in biweekly timesheets. And that is how I would get paid, is only if I had put these timesheets in.

McGregor: Are you talking about filling them in by hand, or like?

Carr: No, they were electronic, right? But nobody had gone and given us any training about, you know, the new system. They had some basic training on Phoenix, but it didn't go into that detail of people — if you were in these situations. There was no training for my boss nor for me on what this new process meant.

McGregor: When she stopped getting paid, it had a cascading effect. 

Carr: Because I was part time working for the government, the insurance — the Sun Life disability insurance — was also affected. So I had no income because the insurance had needed the paperwork coming from the government, and the government, with the new pay system, didn't know how to get those sheets over. And therefore I had no pay. My longest period of no payment was 68 days, and that's including government pay and disability. I was a single mom — I still am — of three children, single income, you know, make over $100,000 as a public servant, and, you know, I am crying in my living room, trying to get anybody just to give me something so that I could pay my bills.

McGregor: Of course, she tried getting it sorted out over the phone.

Carr: I'm explaining my situation and pleading with the agent to help me, and all I can remember him saying is, “What do you want from me? I was a truck driver last week.”

McGregor: And she wasn’t getting answers anywhere else.

Carr: One of the most, you know, degrading things is that nobody could fix it, nobody seemed to take charge or ownership. It was always left on me. It was always left on me to make the phone calls, to file the grievances, to try and get anybody to listen. Nobody ever came. It was always either me solving issues or, you know, the union stepping in. But nobody on the employer side ever called up and say, “Hey, can we help you out?” You feel helpless, you feel like nothing, you feel like the gum on the bottom of somebody's shoe. That's just annoying when you're trying to get paid.

McGregor: What did it mean? Three kids at home, you got household expenses and zero income. What do you do? Like, what — did you borrow money? Like how did you survive?

Carr: I don't know how I survived. I think I played the credit card game: pay one, like take the money from one, use the cashed cheques. I had no more savings. I had withdrawn all my savings. You know, you build a nest egg in a TFSA or other, and you pull all that out. You know, I — my family couldn't help me there, there was no help that way. And you just kind of, you spend your day panicked. You spend your day wondering what you're going to do.

And of course, you know, it started in February. But by the time it came around, it was, you know, school break and the kids are asking why they're not signed up for the camps that they usually go to, the summer hockey camps and the science camps. And you know, “Why aren't I enrolled this year?” And you have this sinking gut in your stomach that is like, “Yeah, why aren't you?” And so I had to explain to them that I was not getting any money, that I had nothing. And of course they can't realize that. I'm still going to work every day. I'm still out laying expenses and having to go in so I'm not at home.

But my daughter came to me one day and she brought down her piggy bank. And she said, “Mom, is this enough?” And I think that's the — when I talk about the PTSD, my kids still have that to this day. Every time I try and do something nice like a vacation, or, you know, we go out for something that's unusual, my youngest daughter's reaction is always “Can we afford it?” And I think that's the most traumatic for me, is the toll not only that it took on me, but that trauma was transferred to my children — for no fault of my own. No fault of anything that I did.

McGregor: Were your personal problems ever resolved?

Carr: No, no. My issues — to the day that I left the Department of National Defence to take this job — were continued. I had created spreadsheets that showed me about only of my paychecks were ever correct.

McGregor: How much money do you think they owed you?

Carr: I'm not sure how much they owed me. And you know, I kept my spreadsheets but, you know, at some point, it just became overwhelming. It’s probably, you know, less than $10,000. But again, you know, it just — when you know you're not going to get it and you're not going to get it easily, and nobody's going to sit down and work it out with you, it's crazy-making.

McGregor: Blair Winger estimates that Phoenix cost him about $17,000.

Winger: And it's like, this is all my money out the window. 

McGregor: Blair was a firefighter with the Department of National Defence. 

Winger: So we did crash rescue training and crash rescue if necessary, shipboard firefighting, all that kind of stuff as well, so. 

McGregor: So did you actually get involved in fighting fires? Like — 

Winger: Oh yeah, we have some, but I mean, we have a very good prevention program, and so that helps a lot. But yeah, definitely. We also did a lot of mutual aid there because we were right along the No. 1 highway — in all honesty, mostly what we did there. We did an awful lot of vehicle extrication and rescues and stuff.

McGregor: But Blair was in his early 60s and was getting ready to retire.

Winger: I didn't want to be an operational firefighter anymore. I thought that that was probably better served by people somewhat younger.

McGregor: He moved to an administrative job. But like many desk jobs in the Canadian government, it was a bilingual position, and Blair doesn’t speak French. So he submitted a retirement date. 

Winger: And that's when I got Phoenixed.

McGregor: So, well, tell me what happens with your Phoenix situation.

Winger: Well, what happened with my Phoenix was my last couple of years in the fire marshal's office, I took pre-retirement transition leave. So I was working a shortened workweek. The problem was, the level I was at — it's an annual salary for firefighters. The annual salary is fine, but there's two different types of firefighters. There's firefighters that work in an operational role. Those work 42 hours a week, in order to cover 24/7: you have four crews and each crew works 42 hours a week. Or there's people that work more in office-type jobs. People in the fire marshal's office work 37 and a half hours a week. But your salary is an annual salary. So in order to end up with the same annual salary, you have to pay the people that work less hours a higher hourly salary.

McGregor: And there was one more factor at play.

Winger: It would have been okay had I continued to work 37 and a ½, but I went down to 30 hours. Then they used the hourly rate for the 42-hour worker when I retired, finally, and cut back all my pay that had been correct, and said, “No, we've reevaluated this. We overpaid you. We're taking all this back.” And then, since then, my pension’s been based on that lower amount. So here we are seven years later, it's still not rectified. I thought I had it solved three or four times with the pay office, but no. It's hard to get anybody to comprehend that you can have one classification paying two different hourly rates of pay.

McGregor: In other words, like Jennifer Carr, Blair’s pay was unusual and he believes that’s what caused his problems. Around the time he retired, he noticed that something was off — clawbacks on his paycheques and a lump sum missing.

Winger: So I got a hold of them right away. And they go, “Oh, no, no.” And I even asked the fellow, I said, “If I could just come in and talk to you, I could explain this and point it all out.” And they got very upset with me and said that they did not need my assistance in figuring out my pay. And so I've never, ever been able to get that solved, in spite of several times having somebody and thinking I had it solved three or four times with the pay office — and then it just falling off the rails. And it's got to the point where it was causing me so much stress that, frankly, I had given up.

McGregor: Some people had the opposite problem: they were overpaid. And that creates different issues altogether.

Cameron: My name is Colin Cameron. So I worked for DRDC, Defence Research and Development Canada, for 14 years, from 2002 until 2016, as a defence scientist.

McGregor: Colin left the public service just after Phoenix launched. 

Cameron: When I left the public service, of course, they kept paying me. And I realized that this was a large problem: a lot of people were getting paid after they retired, a lot of people were not getting paid. And I figured that it would sort itself out at some point. I knew exactly how much I'd been paid. and I continued getting paid for, let’s see, approximately eight months after I left. And I notified them repeatedly, saying, “Hey, guys, you know, you're still paying me.” Of course, the answer was, “Well, this is Phoenix.” I think they were prioritizing the people who had not been paid at that time, which is absolutely sensible. So I just waited and waited, and eventually they stopped paying me, but this has been seven years now — seven years plus — and it's still not sorted out.

McGregor: So you got all this extra money — bank error in your favour — in your account. What do you do with it?

Cameron: I did nothing. I just left it sitting there, knowing that it wasn't mine. And I had no intention of trying to take something which I didn't deserve or hadn't earned. So I just left it in the bank account. In fact, it's still sitting there just waiting to be paid back.

McGregor: How much money are we talking about now? 

Cameron: Well, I was overpaid by approximately $35,000. 

McGregor: And so — but you alerted who? The former department? Or who did you talk to about the fact the money kept coming?

Cameron: Well, initially, I contacted my managers from my old job, and they put in these things called pay action requests to the pay centres. And I guess they hadn’t been actioned. Like I said, I think the pay centres were prioritizing people who hadn’t been paid. But I certainly notified the department. I notified them of the first extra paycheque I got. I go, “I’m not supposed to be getting this, let’s fix it.”

McGregor: And yet, despite trying, he couldn’t give the money back.

Cameron: I would occasionally get a letter from the pay centre saying, you know, “You owe money.” And I would answer back saying, “Yeah, I know I owe money. I know exactly how much money I owe.” — which was always different from what they were asking for. And I said, “I'm happy to pay it back as soon as we agree on what the amount is.” And this would happen occasionally, and then eight months would go by, a year would go by, and then I’d get another letter from the pay centre saying, “Hey, you owe us money.” And I'd say, “Yes, I know I owe you money. This is how much I owe you. I'm happy to pay it back.” And then eight or nine months go by — and this has been going on for probably four or five years, maybe three or four years. And the amount that they're asking for each time changes.

And the most recent one I got, I got a very nasty and aggressive letter from them last September, saying I owe them $85,000. So fully $50,000 further than what I had actually received. And I'm not sure how they justify this sort of thing. They’re calculations, I mean, they're intractable. And in the meantime, I get these things that look like paystubs, every once in a while. In fact, I got one this morning. 

McGregor: Here, he shows me the paystub.

Cameron: This is not going to show for a lot on a podcast. But I have no idea what this is about. It's got all these line items on there with numbers that make no sense to me. And yeah, I've been keeping everything all along.

McGregor: What's the total on that one?

Cameron: Well, I don't know, I can't even tell you because I can't decipher this. You know, the very bottom, like, it says “Total, zero.” But there are lines that say, “Generated overpayment, 25,000.” It's — there's about 20 lines of data on here with numbers which, to me, make no sense. And I get these every month or two. So in the meantime, as I said, they keep sending me these letters, and the most aggressive one was back in September, saying that they're going to start taking that money out of my pension if I don't pay it back. And I answered them again and said, “I am happy to pay this money back. But it has to be the correct amount.”

You can just go add up all the money I got deposited into my bank account over those eight months. It's that simple, and yet it's become this convoluted, torturous nightmare. And every time I get another letter from DND in the mail with one of these mystery paystubs, honestly, the stress level goes up.

McGregor: The stories people tell about the impacts of Phoenix are wide-ranging. It’s not just about the money. It’s the stress and the uncertainty on the rest of their lives. Jennifer Carr, the Phoenix victim we heard from earlier, went on to become president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a labour union that represents 70,000 highly trained and educated federal workers: engineers, scientists, technicians. In that role, she advocated for members on workplace issues like payroll.

Carr: People were delaying things like having children. They were delaying having or moving or buying that house. I have lots of people who would do acting assignments but wouldn't put in the paperwork. So, you know, if you're acting, you're supposed to be paid for the work you do. And they just said, “Nope, I'll do it. I'd like to get paid, but it's just not worth me trying to put it in the system.” Because we would have people who would go, they would get their acting pay and the minute they stopped acting, their pay would be disrupted. So it was dystopian, right?

McGregor: I should note that Jennifer recently went on leave from her union position. She says she was suspended, which her employer disputes. Details are still coming out about that story. Blair Winger was involved in his union too.

Winger: I don't think a lot of the public really understands, you know. People lost houses, people had marriage breakdowns. I mean, it's been awful, through no fault of their own.

McGregor: But the most tragic story about Phoenix came in 2017. A 52-year-old public servant named Linda Deschâtelets was working for the Canada Revenue Agency. She was living with chronic pain, she had a history of drug use and was struggling to keep up with her mortgage. At the beginning of October 2017, she started to receive irregular payments. In December, she took her own life. 

An official report from coroner Pascale Boulay said she was experiencing serious financial difficulties linked to Phoenix. It also said she had raised her financial issues at work without success. Before her suicide, she texted her son to say she had no more energy and she wanted to end her life before she lost her house. 

To quote from the report: “An in-depth analysis of this file strongly suggests that this death could have been avoided if a search for a solution to the current financial, psychological and medical situation had been made. Nothing in the file indicates that management or the compensation department sought to meet Ms. Deschâtelets to offer her options.”

The Canada Revenue Agency sent us a statement. They didn’t address Linda Deschâtelets specifically, but said they’re continuing to improve services to provide better support to employees.

To quote: “In cases where an employee indicates they are experiencing financial hardship because of a pay issue, their file is escalated for an immediate review and the employee may be eligible for emergency salary advances or flexible repayment options for overpayments … When it comes to the challenges faced by our employees, we approach these with great empathy and care … All employees have 24/7 access to mental health support through our Employee Assistance Program services. We want employees to know that it is important and okay to reach out for help if they or someone they know is struggling.”

The CRA also said they’re working with Public Services and Procurement Canada to “stabilize” Phoenix.

Winger: I guess what's most frustrating with this is I think the government would probably step in if any other employer was not paying their people correctly — especially year after year after year after year, and with no end in sight.

Cameron: In my case, I'm not blaming anyone. I know that this was a change in the pay system that was pushed down from up on high. You're left with people who are detached from the end employees and are probably overtasked and unable to cope with the workload. So I think it's just a bad situation all around. But that having been said, it's been seven years. Thousands and thousands of people are languishing with all sorts of pay problems.

Carr: I think I'm going to be very frank with you: the employer doesn't care. The federal government doesn’t care. If it cared, it would be fixed.

McGregor: Most civil servants don't want to rock the boat. Many people still working for the government didn’t want to talk to me on the record because they were worried about harming their careers. People like Colin Cameron, Jennifer Carr and Blair Winger tried going through the proper channels, even when those channels weren't working. But when people aren't getting paid, you can only keep a lid on things for so long before it boils over to the public. Next week …

Roxanne Merrill Young: I said, “I’m here for the politicians. I want the prime minister to hear me.” I said, “I'm not taking this sitting down anymore.” I said, “So, I guess you can arrest me, you can do whatever you want.”

McGregor: The Phoenix scandal becomes a major national news story that causes an uproar in Canadian politics. 

Have you been affected by the phoenix pay system? We’d love to hear your story.

Or perhaps you have questions or comments on this series - We would also like to hear from you. You can contact us here.
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