Retired widower's $50K severance stuck in troubled public pay system

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Retired widower's $50K severance stuck in troubled public pay system

Retired widower's $50K severance stuck in troubled public pay system

Stephen Buell's 18 months of "hell" began with his wife Jacqueline's sudden death.

Although she had been ill, the pain from her passing in October 2015 left the public servant in a dark place. 

At the time, Buell was already on a medical leave of absence from his job with the federal government. He soon realized, he couldn't go back to work. 

"The reason I decided to retire was my wife passed away," Buell told CBC News in an interview outside his home in south Ottawa.

Buell spent 35 years with the federal government, which took him from Charlottetown to the nation's capital, holding a range of different positions. 

His last assignment placed him with a team of employees developing technology to make the workplace more accessible for staff with disabilities. 

Once his mind was made up, the 55-year-old applied for medical retirement. It was approved, and he left the workforce in April 2016. 

It wasn't widely known at the time, but that's also when the government was starting to experience significant challenges with its public servant payroll program, called Phoenix. 

Since its implementation, tens of thousands of public servants have been underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all. And the problems are ongoing.

Overpaid, no severance

Buell first noticed something was wrong when he continued to get a pay cheque after he retired.

"I started calling them at the end of May. I called every week, every two weeks, until just recently," Buell said.

The overpayment stopped in October 2016, but it wasn't until March 2017 that he says he received a letter acknowledging the issue, asking he repay the money. 

"The amount that I was told that I was overpaid, the net amount ... that net amount was $7,000 more than the money I had actually received as pay."

This issue is still being sorted out with the call centre. At the same time, he's also trying to find out what's happened to the more than $50,000 he says he's owed in severance pay. 

Buell says the money should have been delivered to him months ago, and that his life is stuck in limbo until he gets what he's owed. 

"I've wasted a year of my retirement ... I can't make any big decisions," he said.

"I would have liked to take a vacation."

'The system works': MacKinnon

The federal government is getting mixed reaction to the new strategy to tackle Phoenix-related problems, announced this week. 

Ralph Goodale, the most senior member of cabinet and the public safety minister, will head up at task force which hopes to find a solution. For the next two years, the $140-million in savings Phoenix was supposed to generate, will instead be used to help fix problems. And a new $200 rebate is being offered to employees who had to hire help to file their taxes because of Phoenix-related problems.

'We're pleased there is this committee, I would have liked this committee a year ago, but suffice it to say it's here now," said Robyn Benson, president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

She said she would have liked to see the government inject new money into the system, in the hopes of finding a fix as quickly as possible.

Still, one of the task force members is defending Phoenix, downplaying the challenges the government has to tackle.

"The system works," said Steve MacKinnon, the parliamentary secretary of public services and procurement.

He said every two weeks, 300,000 public servants are getting paid, but "what we have now are transaction issues, where peculiarities of an individual, and each individual may have any kind of number of peculiarities ... We must work to make sure those get automated, they get processed more quickly."

MacKinnon also points to emergency salary advances which are available to employees who are not being paid.

CBC News has reported extensively on problems related to the salary advance program. Employees have complained about how long it can take to receive the funds, and that mistakes were made when the money was clawed back.

The Conservatives are dismissing the new approach the Liberals are taking to Phoenix.

"I'm beginning to think this is going to be part of maybe the Liberal's election campaign of 2019 — we will fix Phoenix. I mean it's dragging on and on, and this is just another part of it," said Kelly McCauley, the Tory public service and procurement critic.

MacKinnon would not directly answer any questions about how long it will take before the Phoenix system functions as intended. There is also no estimate as to how much the troubled program will end up costing taxpayers.