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Phoenix pay grievances threaten to choke federal labour relations board

Unions representing employees at Veterans Affairs Canada are calling on the federal government to take steps to fix the Phoenix pay system once and for all. Many workers have been paid incorrectly and, in some cases, not at all.
Unions representing employees at Veterans Affairs Canada are calling on the federal government to take steps to fix the Phoenix pay system once and for all. - SaltWire Network file photo

The number of Phoenix-related pay grievances filed by public servants has skyrocketed during the past three years and threatens to overwhelm an already backlogged federal labour relations board.

Statistics published by the Federal Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board (FPSLREB) show that pay-related issues accounted for 41 per cent of the 1,363 individual grievances filed in 2017-2018. Two years earlier, pay-related grievances accounted for just 12 per cent of the board’s annual caseload.

The board has set up a special working group dedicated to managing the influx of Phoenix grievances.

Virginia Adamson, the board’s executive director and general counsel, said it “continues to make every effort to strategically and practically address the management of its case inventory.”

While it’s impossible to pinpoint how many new pay grievances are directly related to the government’s error-prone pay system, she said, “it’s reasonable to assume that the higher proportions of the past two years can be largely attributable to Phoenix.”

The board has received more than 1,200 pay-related grievances in just two years, but many of those cases have been suspended while officials explore alternative mechanisms to settle the disputes.

The pay grievances have added to the board’s substantial backlog. The board’s overall case inventory hit 7,300 in 2018, up from 5,100 files in 2015 — an increase of 43 per cent in three years.

The board closed 2,000 files last year, which means that new grievances can take three years or more to have a final decision rendered.

Adamson said a new, electronic case management system was launched in March 2018 to help address the backlog. The new system will be able to group files that can be heard together, she said, such as those related to pay problems.

In addition, she said, the FPSLREB has hired three new full-time board members to hear grievances in the past year, along with five part-time members.

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), said her members are often  frustrated by the length of time it takes for a grievance to reach the hearing stage. “It’s nuts,” she said.

With more 60,000 members, PIPSC represents scientists and professionals employed in the federal public service, and some provincial and territorial governments.

Daviau said that the Phoenix compensation package recently negotiated with the federal government — it is still subject to ratification — provides for an expedited process to settle individual pay grievances now before the labour relations board.

Details of that process have yet to hammered out, she said, but the idea is to create a settlement “framework” that would define common grievance scenarios and then determine appropriate remedies and compensation.

Federal civil servants are “three-and-a-half years into the Phoenix hell,” she said, and do not want to wait years more to have their pay grievances resolved.

The federal government has reached a tentative agreement on Phoenix damages with unions that represent 146,000 current and former public servants. The Public Service Alliance of Canada, however, has rejected the proposed Phoenix compensation package as too meagre.

Treasury Board spokesperson Bianca Healy confirmed Tuesday that the tentative deal i ncludes provisions to review and reduce pay-related grievances currently before the federal labour relations board. Details of that new system are not yet available, she said.

The federal labour relations board has a broad mandate. Charged with administering the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations Act, it resolves disputes between civil servants and their employer by hearing individual, group, and policy grievances filed under collective agreements, while also resolving issues related to pay equity, workplace harassment and human rights.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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