The Phoenix generation

The Phoenix generation

Mary O'Donnell's "maternity leave from hell" has struck a chord with other new parents suffering under the federal government's Phoenix pay system, and cast doubt on official claims that the situation is improving for public servants.

O'Donnell's story, published Friday, has led to a deluge of calls and emails to the CBC newsroom from federal employees who have faced similar frustrations, and who want their stories told — so many that we can't cover them all.

O'Donnell has since received apologies from two federal departments, emergency financial aid and a promise to quickly resolve her pay issues. 

For many others, however, their parental leave nightmare is just beginning, and the prospect of a generation of children born and raised in an atmosphere of stress and uncertainty is very real.

'You need to feed your family'

In a typical scenario, the employee's parental leave isn't properly processed, so they keep receiving their regular pay. The government fails to send the worker's record of employment to Service Canada, so their employment insurance doesn't kick in. Then, often months into their leave, the government starts clawing back the pay it mistakenly issued, leaving some families with no income and mounting debt.

The majority of the public servants who contacted CBC are mothers on maternity leave who say their pay problems are taking a physical and emotional toll on them and their families during what should be a precious time with their newborns. They're feeling drained. 

One woman in Manitoba said she's so stressed she's been unable to breastfeed her baby, and has turned to formula.

Others confided that their Phoenix woes — not their families — are the first thing they think of when they wake up in the morning, and the last thing on their minds before they go to sleep at night.

"What else are you supposed to do when you need to feed your family?" asked corrections officer Tara Evans in Mission, B.C., who's experienced problems with her pay since going on maternity leave last September.

Evans said her husband has been unable to work since a serious car accident last fall.

"It's been super stressful," said Evans. "We've just been living off our [employment insurance] payments on a budget we created based off a dual income that we have not been getting."

'Nothing is working'

Sarah-Maude Jobin, a public service employee with the RCMP in Fredericton, N.B., has four children under the age of six, and none of the maternity leave benefits she's entitled to.

Jobin said Phoenix has taken a toll on her marriage because her husband couldn't understand why, no matter how many times she contacted the government's pay centre and help line, she couldn't get her situation resolved.

"It's been nine months now that I haven't heard anything — not an email, not a letter, not a phone call. I've tried everything," said Jobin.

"It's a shame. I'm at the point where nothing is working."

'They're taking my pay'

In a statement to CBC Tuesday, the department in charge of Phoenix wrote: "We understand that this situation is frustrating and we are very sorry."

Public Services and Procurement Canada said it's prioritzing maternity leave cases and has made "significant progress in the last month." The department claims it's on track to resolve the majority of the outstanding parental leave problems by the end of March.

But the calls and emails to CBC keep coming.

Melissa Della Porta, also a correctional officer, said the government began clawing back $14,000 without asking how she'd like to repay the money. This is the second time the Edmonton mother of four has had to go public for help resolving her pay problems.

"They're taking my pay. All of it," Della Porta wrote. "It affects your eating, your sleeping, your energy levels, it's just everything. It's horrible that they can even be doing this to anybody."

Della Porta, who has also complained to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, said the last time she went public with her Phoenix problems they were fixed overnight. 

She said that suggests the government can resolve pay issues when it wants to.

"It's sad to say, but they don't like to be in the spotlight, the government. That's the truth. So if you bring it to the public's attention they are going to get it dealt with right away," Della Porta said.

Have a story to tell? Contact ashley.burke@cbc.ca