News

Phoenix, we have a problem: feds bring in pay experts to deal with ongoing public service pay fiasco

Phoenix was projected to save the feds $67.2-million a year. Now the government's expected to pay $50-million just to fix the problem-plagued new government pay system, and 22,000 cases are still unresolved, down from 82,000.

Federal public service unions protested against the disastrous Phoenix public service pay system outside the Prime Minister's Office on Oct. 31 in Ottawa. The Hill Times Photo by Andrew Meade

By RACHEL AIELLO

PUBLISHED : Monday, Nov. 7, 2016 12:00 AM

With Public Services and Procurement blowing past its deadline to resolve the disastrous Phoenix pay system backlog issues, sources say some departments have hired back or brought in department-specific compensation staff to internally deal with payroll problems.

After pledging to clear up the backlog of public service employee pay issues by Oct. 31, about 22,000 cases are left to tackle, and The Hill Times has learned some departments may have gotten tired of waiting and have brought in their own pay help to move along their employees’ files.

Late last week, one union source, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, told The Hill Times there was speculation that the Treasury Board Secretariat was “about to give each of the departments the ability to process their own pay again.”

“Probably there was mounting frustration not just going to the Treasury Board on the union’s behalf but I expect the departments were probably voicing their displeasure in their unique way that they can to the Treasury Board,” the source said of why the department could be considering this.

  

The source said if true, the unions would be “overjoyed,” but also “stunned” by the possibility.

“Maybe they’ve come to the realization that this program that they had worked out… was as deeply flawed as we’ve been saying all along,” the source said.

But Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s (Kings-Hants, N.S.) press secretary Jean-Luc Ferland said in an email over the weekend that the feds “are not expecting to make such an announcement,” adding that the Treasury Board is “committed to working with Public Services and Procurement Canada to ensure the pay issues are resolved and public servants are paid what they deserve and on time.”

PIPSC and PSAC could not confirm the speculation.

  

Meanwhile, earlier last week and in effort to fix the problem, according to a departmental source not authorized to speak on the record, the Department of National Defence has hired 12 pay advisers, with six permanent positions, and six contract workers.

Chris Aylward, national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), said that department “has a bulk of the concerns.”

In the lead-up to Phoenix’s launch, the government laid off “over half of the compensation advisers,” Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote (Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, N.L.) told reporters in the House of Commons foyer on Oct. 31.

Ms. Foote said those job cuts, made by the previous Conservative government, contributed to the pay system issues. The Phoenix system was projected to save the government $67.2-million a year. However, the government is already expecting to pay $50-million to resolve the fallout of the problem-plagued system, and says that total is expected to increase once the cost for compensation is included.

  

“If the decision had been made not to go for savings initially, the $70-million annually, and if in fact the human resources personnel had been left there until the vision was actually achieved, I think we’d be seeing a different situation today,” Ms. Foote said.

These new staffers do not have direct access to the Phoenix pay system and are acting as go-betweens for departmental staff and the staff in the Miramichi, N.B. pay centre who are handling the backlog of pay cases.

These hired experts are considered internal  are being hired at the departments’ expenses, sources indicated.

Having them aboard has noticeably expedited cases, one person said, because they are able to clearly understand the nuance of the department’s work environments and funnel that to the pay staff handling the cases.

568a1149-t58178081-m800-xc0fc366c

PIPSC president Debi Daviau at the Oct. 31 public service rally in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, demanding the Phoenix pay system be resolved, and employees paid immediately. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), said she’s also heard of “a number” of departments, including Health Canada and the Treasury Board, bringing back pay experts formerly working within the departments that were part of the layoffs going into Phoenix. They are helping to handle what can be nuanced, complicated cases that employees might have previously had to call into the pay centre and speak with multiple advisors to resolve. She said not having experts on specific departmental requirements all along might have compounded the backlog.

“For example if you were a pay adviser in Health Canada, you would have understood very easily how the shift work and the premiums work for our northern nurses. But because those people didn’t exist during this transformation, they were deeply impacted, so what they’ve done is they’ve found these former pay advisers … and they’ve been dedicated to the issues of those departments,” Ms. Daviau said.

She said it’s likely the senior leadership in these departments, like the deputy ministers, would have made the calls to bring in additional help.

“’I can’t accept that my employees are suffering this way and what can I do to make a difference?’ seems to be a little trend right now,” Ms. Daviau said, adding that some of the employees that have been brought back were “happily retired” past pay experts that feel badly about the situation their former colleagues are in now.

To deal with the cases, that reached 82,000 by the summer, the department hired about 200 additional pay centre employees at temporary pay centres in Gatineau, Que., Montreal, Winnipeg, and Shawinigan, Que. The government was hoping many of these hires would be past departmental pay advisers. It is not clear if they are working on department-specific cases based on past experience.

Mr. Aylward said he’s heard additional staff have been added in pay centres in Halifax and Vancouver as well.

While Phoenix covers some 300,000 employees, there are still a number of factions in the public service that are not using Phoenix, which continue to use their own pay advisers and individual pay systems, including the Canadian Forces and the Canada Border Service Agency.

Ms. Daviau argued that if departments under Phoenix are going back to the old model of having their own internal experts help the pay process through, it throws into question whether the new centralized model is the way to continue going. She said the government needs to “rethink” the structure.

During last week’s briefing on the state of the pay problems, Public Services deputy minister Marie Lemay told reporters that until the pay backlog—82 per cent of which predates Phoenix—is cleared, that’ll be the focus of a “dedicated team of compensation advisers” at the headquarters in Miramichi.

“In the meantime, the rest of our compensation advisers, including those in our satellite offices, are turning their focus towards our steady state,” Ms. Lemay said, explaining the “steady state” as when the department is consistently meeting its service standards of having employees consistently receive their pay correctly and on time.

“There is still a lot of work needed to get us to our steady state, and there is no quick fix. That said, we expect steady improvement month over month from now on,” she said, declining to offer up a new deadline or plan for getting there, just saying the department is mindful of December for tax reasons.

For now, the department says it will keep on all the additional pay advisers it’s hired until “steady state” is reached, and according to Ms. Lemay: “If we see that we need more compensation advisers, we said that we would have to keep some.”

Ms. Foote said she’s not ruling out adding more permanent pay positions and that the plan the department is currently working on, which is expected in a few weeks, will lay out the department’s intention going forward.

As well, Ms. Lemay said she had communicated to departments that “it was very important” all managers responsible for inputting employee pay information into Phoenix complete the online training, but neither she nor the minister could say how many managers had done it.

“We’re going to make sure that everybody that needs sufficient training will get it. So we’re going to work hard at that. … But again, the first priority for us is to deal with the backlog of cases,” said Ms. Foote.

Compounding the frustration public servants are feeling over the prolonging of these pay problems, especially as tax season approaches, unions are also worried that the issue could be much bigger than the department is letting on, as the department is still unable to say how many new cases have come in since July.

Ms. Daviau said the number of cases seems lower than what she would expect, based on knowing that just one-third of the formal cases PIPSC is tracking have been resolved.

“It seems unclear to me that they actually have a good handle on the numbers. Either they’re playing a little bit of hide-and-seek with the numbers, or maybe things are just changing so quickly they’re having trouble tracking them, I don’t know, but the numbers seem awry.”

Auditor General Michael Ferguson, meanwhile, last week noted the Phoenix pay system’s “unacceptable” delays and errors and said he will be conducting a major investigation into the project, which is expected to be released in 2018, The Ottawa Citizen reported.

Editor’s note: This story originally reported the Canada Border Service Agency was not using Phoenix. In fact, although the department is not using the pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., and continues to use its own pay advisers internally, it is using the Phoenix system.

raiello@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times