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Public servants concerned by ‘insulting’ Phoenix damages deal, worried claims process could be emotionally taxing

By Emily Haws      

Meanwhile, PSAC declared a second bargaining impasse for four groups representing 90,000 of its members, and is once again heading down the strike route.

PSAC national president Chris Aylward said his union rejected the Phoenix damages tentative agreement because it didn't sufficiently compensate his members. 16 other unions accepted it. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Some public servants are reacting strongly to the news the government struck a tentative deal with most unions on the Phoenix damages, saying they are concerned about the amount of leave proposed and are worried the claims process will be emotionally taxing on public servants who have already dealt with the pay nightmare for three years.

Phoenix was supposed to streamline pay, but instead has left public servants underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all since its launch in February 2016. It was supposed to save $70-million annually, but instead has cost the government more than $1.2-billion and counting.

Treasury Board announced May 3 that after two years of negotiation, the Joint Union-Management Consultation subcommittee on Phoenix damages—which has both union and government representatives on it—had reached a tentative agreement with 16 out of 17 unions. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), which is the largest federal public sector union with 140,000 federal members, rejected the offer.

Unions that agreed to the tentative deal include the Association of Justice Counsel (AJC), which represents federal lawyers, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents professionals and scientists, and the Association of Canadian Financial Officers (ACFO), which represents financial professionals, among others. The Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which represents analysts and translators, though quoted in the Treasury Board’s May 3 release announcing the agreement, clarified May 9 it had not accepted the agreement, but wasn’t outright rejecting it either.

The agreement will cover over 146,000 current and former public servants in the core public administration, called so because Treasury Board is deemed the official employer. Similar agreements are expected to come soon for separate agencies, said the press release, and more details on how the deal will be administrated will follow in the coming months.

“We believe in making this right for all employees and recognize the real mental and emotional stress, and financial impact that the Phoenix pay system has had on public servants,” said Treasury Board President Joyce Murray (Vancouver Quadra, B.C.) in the press release. “These pay issues are completely unacceptable and we are committed to treating employees fairly and to compensating those impacted.”

Treasury Board President Joyce Murray said in a press release she is committed to compensating those impacted by Phoenix. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade 

There were few details on the agreement in the press release, however, it noted that, if ratified, all employees—regardless of whether they had pay issues—would get leave. For those with extensive issues, an expanded claims process is proposed.

According to PSAC’s website, public servants covered by the deal would get two days leave for the 2016-17 fiscal year, and one day annually for 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20, adding up to a total of five days. Former employees will receive an equal cash payout.

The claims process would allow employees to claim both tangible damages, such as missed mortgage payments, and less tangible ones, such as damaged credit scores, as long as the damages are more than $1,500.

A joint statement from the unions that did agree to the deal published May 7 further outlined that the new agreement “allows for the reimbursement of sick leave for members who took such leave because of Phoenix,” as well as payment of interest on delayed severance payments, pension entitlements or missing pay, among other types of compensation.

“We have also secured a commitment from the employer that should a bargaining agent secure additional compensation outside of this settlement, all signatory unions will receive the same compensation,” the statement said.

The initial information from PSAC set off a firestorm of comments on social media, with some suggesting that a week of annual leave would be more appropriate, rather than one or two days per year, or that there should be a cash option instead.

Logan Leduc, a PIPSC member who has worked at Environment Canada since 2010, said he was frustrated by the leave provision and is concerned about how the compensation claims process will work.

He has taken several acting positions since Phoenix launched, but hasn’t received the raises owed to him. His wife’s maternity leave benefits were also impacted, leading to her taking the entire year off instead of the two splitting it as originally planned.

“My initial reaction is that it was a joke, or insulting,” he said, given the magnitude of Phoenix problems.

Another PIPSC member told The Hill Times, on a not-for-attribution basis, they were cautiously optimistic about the deal, adding they were happy that there was an acknowledgment that everyone had been impacted regardless of whether or not they directly experience pay issues.

People didn’t take acting positions, or chose not to retire, she said, but “personally, I don’t know that five days is enough for that, for that heartache,” but admitted she didn’t yet know the full details.

The PIPSC member had a particularly bad Phoenix case that resulted in her taking more than a year off work, causing her to go into therapy, deplete her savings, and use credit to survive.

“It was even a struggle for my psychologist,” she said. “How do you counsel someone who can’t have control over anything?”

While she’s pleased there’s compensation, she added the application process is likely going to take an emotional toll on employees who are already stretched beyond their limits.

PIPSC didn’t respond to questions posed by The Hill Times by deadline, however, president Debi Daviau said in a closed Facebook Phoenix support group that there was a comprehensive settlement framework negotiated to establish damages amounts.

“Each case will be analyzed against the framework,” she wrote, adding more details are coming. “Any individual who feels the compensation is not adequate can still access expedited final level hearings and arbitration.”

PIPSC president Debi Daviau said on social media that there will be a framework to evaluate Phoenix cases on. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

PSAC national president Chris Aylward said in an interview before the announcement was made that the union rejected the deal because it didn’t reflect the hardship that public servants had faced.

“It’s pretty much not even close to being acceptable by PSAC,” he said. “We’re still hopeful that we can enter into direct discussions with the government and get something that’s more acceptable for PSAC members.”

“On average, a day and a quarter a year’s worth of leave is nowhere close to where we would want to be,” he said.

In particular, Mr. Aylward said members deserved more leave, and there should be no $1,500 threshold. He’s now calling on the government to negotiate with PSAC directly, but the government hasn’t signalled positively on that front.

Farees Nathoo, a spokesperson for Ms. Murray, said in an emailed statement May 3 that the office is disappointed by PSAC’s rejection. The department’s press release said it is “open to extending this agreement to the Public Service Alliance of Canada at any time.”

“We remain committed to negotiating in good faith to reach an equitable agreement that is fair for employees and good for Canadians,” Mr. Nathoo said.

If public servants are concerned about the deal, “they should question why 16 unions took it,” a source on background told Civil Circles because he wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter publicly. He called it “a good deal.”

While the process to negotiate the deal was lengthy—two years—it actually went quite smoothly, said the source.

There was no bad faith, nor was it stalled, said the source. Rather, it was just a complicated process due to having 17 unions involved, the complexity of Phoenix issues, and figuring how to compensate for various forms of damages.

PSAC declares impasse, will file to start strike process

Meanwhile, PSAC resumed its journey down the road to a strike last week, declaring a bargaining impasse for four of its largest groups representing 90,000 people in the core public administration. It will be filing once again for a Public Interest Commission (PIC) shortly.

The groups include Program and Administrative Services (PA)—which represents the vast share of the 90,000—Education and Library Science (EB), Technical Services (TC), and Operational Services (SV). They represent federal educators, administrators, and technicians, among others.

PSAC had previously declared an impasse last year and filed for a PIC, but it was put off after the labour board said there were still too many issues on the table, and the parties had not met enough yet. This time, Mr. Aylward said he’s confident it will be established as both of those issues have been solved.

“We have narrowed down our demands, and we will certainly even do more of that before going back to the PIC, and… we’ve now met three more times,” said Mr. Aylward. “The government has only moved marginally, and we’ll be able to demonstrate that.”

The three-person commission has a chairperson appointed by the Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board (PSLERB) and representatives nominated by the government and union.

During a commission hearing, both sides submit briefs and explain their positions on the issues at play. The commission’s final report with settlement recommendations is not binding, but helps the parties find a path forward.

The report is supposed to be submitted to the chairperson within 30 days by law, but exceptions can be granted. Seven days after the report is filed, the union can call the first strike vote. However, the process doesn’t automatically stop bargaining negotiations.

Mr. Nathoo said in a May 6 emailed statement that the office always respects made by the labour board.

The two sides have been bargaining since June, with key issues being wages and maternity leave benefits, among others. Negotiations are still being structured a bit like cable packages, Mr. Aylward said.

Negotiations started with PSAC tabling 3.5 per cent wage increase proposal last year, and Treasury Board countering with 0.75 per cent. The current proposals are at 3.25 per cent and 1.25 per cent, respectively, said Mr. Aylward said. PSAC also wants the maternity leave top-up to be extended to 18 months, following legislation extending it in 2018.

The government has also refused to renew a mental health MOU that was agreed to several years ago, he said, which he found “mind-boggling” because the government has advocated for improving mental health in the workplace. It’s also resisting the proposal to allow nursing women breastfeeding breaks, said a recent press release. Civil Circles asked the department why this was the case, but it didn’t respond by deadline.

Mr. Nathoo added in his emailed statement that the government is committed to good-faith bargaining, and added his government has restored fairness to the bargaining regime.

“Out of respect for the bargaining process and agents, we will continue to negotiate at the bargaining table and not comment publicly on specific proposals,” he said.

ehaws@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) has not yet agreed to the tentative deal on Phoenix damages. 

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