Student worker says gender got in the way of getting Phoenix pay

Being forced to select a gender prevented Gabriel Schepens from getting paid under the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system.

“They just kind of shove you into whichever box they prefer at the time,” said Schepens, a University of Alberta student, who identifies as gender non-binary.

“This is not good enough.”

It’s been more than three years since the launch of Phoenix, the IBM-customized system that went live on Feb. 24, 2016.

Since then, tens of thousands of federal workers have been either overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

Media have reported countless stories of workers losing their vehicles or even their homes and student employees forced out of school when they were unable to pay tuition.

For Schepens, the problems started in early February with a tiny box on a Phoenix document.

‘Forced to choose’ 

Pay transfers from Schepens’ job as a student employee for Parks Canada in Vancouver were not being processed because Schepens marked the gender box with an X.

The system only had options for male or female.  

“In the personal information form, it had a blank space and so I put an X, because that’s the gender I have on my government drivers license and that’s how I identify,” Schepens said.

“Apparently, the software rejected my profile because of a gender error and no one was able to override that to rectify the situation.”

Schepens immediately informed the manager at Parks Canada, who contacted human resources.

Schepens was told to get paid, one of the boxes must be chosen, a rule which applies to all federal government employees.

“My boss, she had been asked to tell me that I would have to choose a gender in order to get paid,” Schepens said. “They put a gender down for me. I don’t even know which one they put.”

Schepens started getting paid a week later, but it would take nearly two months for the gender information to be officially corrected within the pay system.

“Because I kicked up a stink, I was getting these strange cheques from the Government of Canada but it wasn’t a true paycheque,” Schepens said.

“They had not been able to navigate the system so they sent me a traditional cheque.”

In a statement to CBC News, Parks Canada said members of the LGBT2SQ+ community are valued employees and visitors, and ensuring employee files are handled “promptly and accurately is a priority.”

“Parks Canada said it is committed to working together with Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to resolve issues,” the emailed statement reads.

The PSPC is in charge of stabilizing the current Phoenix system as the federal government forges ahead to replace the Phoenix payroll system entirely.

While Schepens’s issues with Phoenix were short-lived, Schepens remains concerned about other LGBTQ employees caught up in similar problems. 

People should be given the freedom to express their true gender identity, Schepens said.

All government agencies should have a third gender identifier — something beyond checking off “male” or “female” on a form, Schepens said.

“They put my gender as unknown and that means to me, that there is not a gender neutral option.

“There must be more than one person who probably runs into this. And it’s weird because when we made the inquiry, the pay system people said that this had never been a problem before.

“That makes me think that everyone else just understood that they were forced to choose and never stood up for themselves.” 

It’s not the first Schepens has encountered problems. 

People are still required to identify as male or female for Alberta health coverage and Schepens often struggles to book flights with airlines due to the lack of diverse gender identifiers available on the paperwork.

“The federal government recently listed gender identity as part of the human rights protections in Canada but it’s just a show at this point,” Schepens said.

“Nothing they are in charge of, like the Phoenix pay system and the health system, has changed and it seems like they aren’t too keen to have someone push back.”

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