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‘We inherited the mess, but we’re committed to fixing it,’ hundreds of thousands of cheques still affected by Phoenix pay problems

By Derek Abma      

PSPC says there were 265,000 payments in the queue for correction early last month.

Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon, parliamentary secretary to the Public Services minister, says of Phoenix, 'We inherited this mess, but we are committed to fixing it.' The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Pay problems for federal public servants caused by the problematic Phoenix system are still ongoing, with little reduction in the backlog of error-ridden paycheques in recent months.

Public Services and Procurement Canada has stopped updating an online dashboard that broke out various statistics on how many paycheques were subject to corrections due to Phoenix issues. Last updated to show data for March, it said there were 284,000 pending transactions at that time that had been delayed past service standards.

The backlog of problematic paycheques appears to have been reduced, but not considerably. PSPC spokesman Nicolas Boucher said that as of June 2, there were 265,000 transactions with Phoenix-related errors awaiting corrections.

“We are constantly making progress and continue to improve how pay is managed to make it more reliable and efficient,” he said in an email. “There is still a lot of work left to do, but we remain committed to resolving all pay issues and to stabilize the situation as quickly as possible.”

Mr. Boucher said the ministerial working group established in April has been meeting on a weekly basis. That group is chaired by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina-Wascana, Sask.), and also includes Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.), Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.), Natural Resources Minister and acting Public Services Minister Jim Carr (Winnipeg South Centre, Man.), Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.), and Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon (Gatineau, Que.), who is parliamentary secretary to the Public Services minister.

When asked why the online dashboard was no longer being updated, Mr. Boucher said it was determined that “the associated numbers and concepts” used for that dashboard “can be confusing.”

He added: “To that end, one of the first things the working group of ministers … identified was a need to provide clearer, more useful information to employees and to the public. We are currently working on a new version of the public service pay dashboard to ensure that we provide employees with useful information regarding our progress.”

Mr. Boucher would not identify a target date for achieving stability as it pertains to public service paycheques, but said: “The pay issues currently being experienced by public servants are unacceptable and we are working collaboratively at all levels to resolve them. Ensuring all employees are paid the money that they have earned remains our priority. We are making all necessary efforts to reach a steady state as quickly as possible.”

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale chairs a ministerial working group devoted to Phoenix problems. The Hill Times photograph by Rachel Aiello

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Mr. Goodale, said cabinet confidence prevented him from providing details on what decisions the ministerial group has taken so far on Phoenix or if they had identified timeline for when these problems would be fixed.

Mr. MacKinnon said in an emailed statement: “Our government is committed to fixing the pay system so employees receive the money they are owed on time.”

He added: “To address the gap in capacity, our government is making the necessary investments, which include increasing the number of compensation staff. These investments demonstrate our commitment to explore all options, leave no stone unturned, and we won’t stop working until this problem is fixed.”

The Liberal government flicked the switch on the Phoenix pay system in two phases in February and May 2016 after the previous the Conservative government made the decision to move to this new system.

Mr. MacKinnon repeated the government’s long-held position that the previous Conservative government is to blame for the pay problems because it “eliminated over 700 compensation jobs in departments, resulting in a shortage of capacity to implement a new pay system. … We inherited this mess, but we are committed to fixing it.”

While the Liberal government has done a fair amount of finger-pointing toward the former Conservative government for Phoenix problems, it has also targeted IBM, the company that provided the technology for this new payroll system. Last month before the Senate Finance Committee, Mr. Brison said “there is reputational risk for IBM in not helping us fix this. … IBM needs to be an active partner working closely with us. They have, as the vendor of this technology, a responsibility to help us fix this.”

When asked about its past and ongoing role with Phoenix, IBM Canada spokeswoman Carrie Bendzsa said in an email: “IBM continues to work in close partnership with the Crown on this project. … IBM performed extensive customization specified by the Crown to a commercial HR solution that the Crown had selected. Responsibility for training design and execution was transferred to the Crown in March 2014.”

From the left, PSAC’s Larry Rousseau and Robyn Benson, and PIPSC’s Debi Daviau. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Robyn Benson, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the largest federal public service union, said: “There still are issues with Phoenix every payday. … They still have several hundred thousand in the queue with pay action required.”

She added: “There are still individuals who are not getting their acting pay. There are still individuals who are not getting their overtime. There are still individuals who are not getting their paycheque, period.”

Ms. Benson complimented the ministerial working group for “taking this this very seriously,” but added: “It’s an embarrassment, quite frankly, that the federal government cannot pay their employees. And it’s not just our members who know this. Canadians at large know this. You can stop practically anybody on the street and say the word ‘Phoenix,’ and people will know.”

She said the government is “certainly working to try to rectify this situation, but it will take a long time.” Ms. Benson predicted it would be “a little more than a year” before Phoenix issues are eliminated, or close to it.

“The system itself needs to be changed,” she said. “They need to bring folks in to do the work. … IBM needs to come in and they need to make the appropriate system changes that will facilitate accurate payment to our members.”

Fellow union president Debi Daviau, of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), predicted that Phoenix would be thorn in the side of public servants for at least the next two years. She said she gets this sense from things like the government feeling the need to create the ministerial working group to deal with Phoenix, and from its announcement in May that it would spend $142-million over the next two years on staff to deal with payroll issues.

“That’s a good indication that we’re in it for the long haul, for a couple of years at least,” she said.

Ms. Daviau said that when 7,000 scientists in her union received their first paycheques under a new collective agreement on June 14, about 1,700 of them had errors.

“For the vast majority of them, it was less pay [than owed], and some people even got zero paycheques as well as wrong deductions, etc.,” she said.

She said the union was assured that the issues would be rectified by the time the next paycheques came out on June 28, “but unfortunately we’re hearing from a lot of members that that’s not the case.”

Ms. Benson and Ms. Daviau noted that they have met with the ministerial committee and say that this high-level political involvement appears to be having a positive effect.

Ms. Daviau noted that she got the okay from PSPC to put out a call for 30 to 40 IT experts from her union to join efforts to fix Phoenix. She said she thinks this was the result of a directive from the ministerial group, but she can’t be sure. “No formal recognition is made of that other than we asked for it, and then we were invited to a meeting with PSPC, and then it was made so.”

Ms. Benson said she’s pressed the ministerial group on the need to rehire of scores of compensation advisers who were laid off or moved to other jobs by the former Conservative government. She’s also told them the call centres dealing with workers experiencing pay problems should be staffed with public servants, who actually have access to the Phoenix system, rather than contract workers who don’t.

“My understanding is that the call-centre folks don’t have access to the system at all, so really they’re just there to hear somebody complain,” she said.

Ms. Daviau said she’s urged the ministers in this working group to use public servants for the ongoing maintenance of the Phoenix rather than contracting it out, a request she said the government has not indicated a position on yet.

“The fiasco should have taught them that it’s not the way to go in an intricate government system, and once they have a capacity of 60 or so government IT workers trained and ready to work on this system, there would be no reason whatsoever to waste your money on a private-sector contact,” she said.


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