I wrote earlier on Phoenix and attempted to deconstruct the mess that it has become, although perhaps it is more apt to say the mess it was from the beginning and remains so even now. My focus was on the process, and some people asked me about an apparent lack of sensitivity or where my anger was for the disaster on the victims’ behalf. I’ll defer my anger to my next post, as it goes in a slightly different direction than most.
But let’s address a couple of those sympathy concerns.
First, am I cold, heartless, unsympathetic? Not really, but I am capable of writing about it in a dispassionate tone. Partly because it’s public administration and anything less dissolves into rhetoric. And partly as I view public issues like this almost like a battlefield of wounded. And you have to triage the victims somehow, see who you need to stabilize quickly while prioritizing the serious cases to the head of the line.
Sure, I said upfront that everyone should be paid in full, on time and without reservation. Saying it is easy. It’s a fundamental principle.
But they weren’t paid in full, or in some cases, at all. Nor were they paid on time, or in some cases, at all. Nor were they paid without reservation, or with any explanation of how it was correct or not, or if it was ever to be corrected in the future.
And I can sympathize all I want, but there’s a saying about where you can find sympathy — in the dictionary between sh** and syphilis. And about as welcome or useful.
Sympathy doesn’t change the facts. Or the process that has been a disaster. Or the need to triage the victims somehow.
Do all of them deserve to be paid? Absolutely. In full, on time and without reservation.
But if you want to talk empathy, or sympathy, and throw yourself on the bonfire of righteous indignation as a victim with claims for support, we as civil servants need a bit of a reality check too. There is a limit to empathy in the public, as there should be, and we’d better do the triaging properly before someone else does it for us.
Seeking public sympathy
I know lots of people complain that the public doesn’t understand our jobs, blah blah blah, we’re underpaid against some fictional private-sector equivalent, blah blah blah. But here’s the thing…if we think our jobs suck that bad, why do so many of us work for the government until retirement? The short answer is that they are good jobs, relatively secure compared to lots of other jobs, and decently paid. And in most cases, better than the alternatives we have available to us. Sure, I don’t discount personal values, it’s the primary reason I work for the government. But I also know that I couldn’t make the same money doing the same thing in any other sector in Canada. Yep, I’m told by subordinates, peers, and bosses that I’m really good at my job, a combination of interest and skills. But I’m under no illusions that I’m some wunderkind who could leave tomorrow and light up the private sector in anything other than consulting areas, which I have little to no interest in doing. I don’t care to debate whether people earn the right salary or if it could be higher or lower. That’s subjective. But if you compare salaries with the vast number of Canadians who work in other sectors, almost all of them think we have pretty good jobs. So there’s that.
Secondly, there are people who say they haven’t been paid at all in months. Yep, that totally sucks. From top to bottom, end to end. Does my saying that make you feel better? Of course not, you’re not a superficial snowflake.
But at the same time, I probably have the most sympathy for anyone who isn’t being paid at all — from the long-term worker whose pay got screwed up, to the young employee who changed jobs and it got screwed up, to the new co-op student trying to pay rent and save for the next term of school.
And yet I still have to triage somehow.
There’s another external perspective. The vast majority of Canadians we serve could not go three months with no paycheque. They couldn’t do it. Not without social assistance, or EI, or looking for another job. They sure as hell couldn’t afford to keep showing up for work. Yet civil servants apparently can. And are. That should give you some idea of our relative standard of living compared to the taxpayers who pay our salary.
Yep, you can tell me “But, but, but, but…” and I fully agree with you on how much your life is getting screwed up by the lack of being paid. But you’re still going to work, partly as you know it is the best job you have ever had or ever will have, and because you are able to bootstrap and hack your life into increasingly screwed up ways and still keep going. You shouldn’t have to, totally agree, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the economic resilience you have that lets you do that is about ten to fifteen times greater than most Canadians.
And if I have to triage which victim to help, you’re not dying on the battlefield in the next five minutes. Pretty cold, I admit.
A crappy comparator
We also need to have an almost crappy element that goes with that comparison. We have Canadians both receiving and not receiving benefits from the government who are in way worse difficulty and personal hardship than our lack of a paycheque. Health issues, personal trauma, unimaginable loss. As an example, one that I try to keep in mind, there is a program at ESDC for temporary financial assistance for parents of murdered or missing children. Because they’re in hell and likely not able to be at work. Thousands of stories across the country of people with unimaginable hardship asking for help.
And we, as civil servants, are viewed by many as having good jobs, maybe even being overpaid, definitely viewed as often incompetent or lazy, or both. And we say, “Hey, we deserve to be paid.”
Absolutely. In full, on time, and without reservation. Absolutely. A solid right. Reinforced in law, written in agreements, the fundamental principle of our economic system.
But when I look at a parent who lost a child through going missing or being murdered, or a family dealing with cancer of their 35-year-old mother, or dealing with an abusive stepparent, I have to put a civil servant with a pretty good life and pay rate yet who is suffering financial hardship, personal stress, worsening health, and then put it in the same triage context that most Canadians do. We’re not at the top of their sympathy card list. Not as a group at least.
Killers of empathy
I know you probably don’t think that sounds very sympathetic. Mostly because I speak truth, not hypocrisy. And no, I’m not talking about simply “counting your blessings”. But we also shouldn’t come forward as civil servants with stories you have heard from John in accounting who knows someone who works over at another department, who heard that their cousin, twice removed, once met someone at Bluesfest who hadn’t been paid in 20 years.
Because that’s the kind of crap that people are peddling out there. You want sympathy for a bunch of fellow civil servants who are experiencing pay disruptions, and treat them all as a single group worthy of the same sympathy? Not a chance. Because not all of them are the same. I don’t mean they’re not all victims, I’m saying they are not all in the same predicament or facing the same level of hardship.
I’ll try to formally triage the group a bit, and only focus on those who are actually having their pay messed up:
- People who aren’t getting paid at all;
- People who are getting paid, but less than 60% of their regular salary;
- People who are getting paid, but 60-80% of their regular salary;
- People who are getting paid, but 80-100% of their regular salary;
- People who are getting paid their regular salary but haven’t got a promotional raise yet;
- People who are getting paid but haven’t got their retro cheques yet;
- People who are getting paid, but haven’t got corrections from some time back; and,
- People who are being overpaid and will eventually have to pay it back.
There are probably some other categories in there, but let’s start with those 8.
Should all of them be getting paid? Absolutely. In full, on time and without reservation. Are they? No.
But I don’t have a magic wand, nor does anyone else, that will get all of those people paid at once. So who needs to be prioritized first? The list above is my personal priority order. It’s a bit subjective in some places…I’m not sure about #s 5, 6 and 7, and I could go either way on the head of that pin. But #1 (not being paid) vs. #8 (overpaid)? No question which one I think is higher priority. And defensible both publicly and in public admin policy.
I could see maybe someone else arguing that the time factor is the most important issue, that those who have been affected the longest and thus have had to stretch their resiliency network the farthest should be the highest priority. I’d generally agree with that as a second parameter in each of the categories above, but not being paid at all is a black hole from which there may be no easy escape and those with cauterized wounds are a lower priority than those openly bleeding out.
Equally, I could see someone else arguing it isn’t about length of time owed or who’s being paid, but what the total $$ value that is owed. A magnitude issue. Again, I could see that as a viable analysis, but for the same reason as the previous one, I’d likely defer to my list as primary.
But what do we ACTUALLY do as a group of public servants? We lump all the irregularities together and talk about 500K cases. That’s the best way to kill empathy because there aren’t even 500K employees. And complaining publicly that person X is being overpaid? That makes us look like we’re just whiny.
The way forward
Do I think all of these people need to be helped? Of course I do. And that has nothing to do with empathy, because there is a simpler rationale than personal values. PAYING PEOPLE IS BASIC GOVERNANCE. Everybody should be able to change their mailing address, use whichever first name they want in email and correspondence, update their banking info, get hired, get paid, take leave, get promotions, retire, etc. with a minimum of administrative angst.
On what f***ing planet is it acceptable in any business to have people work for you and NOT PAY THEM? None. (Okay, I’ll take the anger down a notch). But it’s still administratively ridiculous. And as a civil servant, freaking embarrassing. It’s the worst confirmation for people who thought simple servants were lazy, incompetent and overpaid.
But I digress…
What do we actually need to do? We need to decide WHICH CATEGORY OF PATIENT is the most in need of help. We need to say, at least in my view, that those not getting paid are the first priority. And honestly, despite the fact that I am generally against government workers striking for anything over than workplace safety issues (again reflecting a lot of the sentiment already against us plus the reality check of our life against the average Canadian), I think people not being paid fundamentally violates our collective agreements with our employer.
Which leaves me aghast at the lack of organized union activity around the issue, including a blue-flu equivalent — maybe beige flu? — on the first Monday of every month, work to rule campaigns, organized demonstrations, or perhaps demand that all processing stop on every other type of claim until those who are NOT being paid at all are entirely corrected. If Miramichi is not able to do the triaging to fix the problem, why hasn’t the unions forced their way into doing it for them?
We also have to stop putting forward the wrong poster children if we want public opinion on our side. This is where I get into looking like an inconsiderate d-bag.
But there are some people who have been stepping forward to say, “I’m losing my house because of Phoenix.” Which is a great soundbite. Except it wasn’t true.
The people portrayed were not losing their house. They were maybe stressed about it, but guess what? They had dual incomes, the other one was just fine, and yes, they were playing with bill payments and timing and stuff, but they were not ACTUALLY going to be foreclosed upon, it was just rhetoric and puffs of smoke (foreclosure, by the way, is extremely rare in Canada as most banks don’t want your house and they can’t profit from it, unlike some US jurisdictions — they’d rather send you nasty letters for lots of months and refinance things out the wazoo than take your house). A few others who have sought the limelight failed to mention that their problem with Phoenix didn’t even result in a pay disruption — they just made a change that hasn’t been reflected yet — while others did experience pay problems, but the total was less than $1000 net. One who made the national press failed to mention that the main reason they were facing financial problems was that they were running TWO PRIVATE BUSINESSES THAT WENT BANKRUPT (a restaurant and something else to do with pets as I recall). It wasn’t even 100% clear that the person actually HAD a Phoenix problem. But the union and then the press trotted them out with no vetting of their claims.
I’ve seen this before. Back in the early 2000s, or was it the late 1990s?, there was an article in the Citizen that you could make more money as a roofer than you could as a foreign service officer. The union thought it was awesome, the senior management knew it was crap. The person they profiled wasn’t really a roofer — he ran a roofing company. Along with four other businesses that he started. He was an entrepreneur at heart, not a bureaucrat. Not exactly the “real story”. Equally, they profile someone who left to go to academia. Again, not exactly true…he left to be with a woman he’d fallen in love with overseas. When that didn’t work out in the end, alas the path of true love, he went back to do his Ph.D. A third was equally skewed. In government, we see this ALL of the time. And we know the REAL story, and we know that bad reporting and skewing may make newbies think it’s all about the narrative, but that’s now how the real government works, and it isn’t how pay systems get fixed.
That seems almost like irresponsible representation in my view because the union propped them up to speak against their employer — oh, sorry, OUR employer — and then let them misrepresent the facts of our relationship with the employer. Isn’t there a name for that — bad faith? And OUR reps did it on OUR behalf.
Plus, as I mentioned in my previous post, some people put in claims for incremental benefits and asked for things that had nothing to do with Phoenix. Like trying to claim their mortgage payments, not the extra interest charged. Really? How does THAT help our cause? It really doesn’t. It just pisses off politicians and senior managers and makes them think, “Hmm, maybe all those other claims aren’t as truthful as they claim they are.” Our credibility is destroyed each time one of us does something that stupid and then acts as if they represent all of us. Grrr….
If we want public sympathy or even attention from the government powers that be, if we want to keep our credibility, it is no different than what we expect from the people who lobby us.
Show the real victims (we have them, they’re real, we don’t have to make them up!), not victims-with-spin.
Pick the highest priority group.
And insist they get treated first.
Because 95% of Phoenix victims who are still getting paid, but it isn’t the right amount or there’s some other glitch, are drowning out the voices of the unpaid 5% who are truly in need of our collective support.
And as crappy as the lives are in the 95% group as a result of Phoenix, I find it hard to express sympathy for them as an overall group when they aren’t putting the other 5% first.
Once their wounds are treated, we can move to the next group in the triage. Until then, I guess I’ll remain cold and heartless.