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Phoenix pay centre backlog grew by 8,000 last month

By Emily Haws      

In October the number of backlogged cases increased to 265,000.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, foreground, stands with Treasury Board President Scott Brison at a Phoenix-related press conference in October. The backlog of cases increased again this month by 8,000, bringing the total to 265,000 cases above normal workload at the Public Service Pay Centre.
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The backlog of public service pay cases went up by 8,000 in October, marking the third consecutive month of increases in the number of cases of public servants being overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all under the problem-plagued Phoenix payroll system.

The number of open cases waiting to be processed above the normal workload grew from 257,000 on Sept. 20 to 265,000 on Oct.18. The Public Service Pay Centre can normally process about 80,000 cases per month, according to a September government update.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.) told reporters after Question Period Wednesday that the government hopes to lower the backlog in the new year.

“I sympathize so greatly with public servants who are experiencing these pay issues, and their families,” Ms. Qualtrough said.

“As a former public servant myself, it is really and honestly and sincerely unacceptable that they have to go through these troubles.”

Ms. Qualtrough added the government is doing everything it can and the problem will not be resolved overnight.

One person may have more than one open case.

“While the exact number fluctuates daily, it is estimated that more than half of public servants are experiencing some form of pay issue, including those served by the pay centre as well as non-pay centre departments,” said the government’s latest update on the pay problems.

The government originally promised to have the backlog of pay issues resolved in October 2016.

The backlog started out this summer getting smaller—between June and the end of July, the backlog had decreased by 37,000 cases to 228,000. In August the number began creeping up again to 237,000.

The government is blaming the rising backlog on the implementation of 19 new contracts reached recently with federal public service unions. A tentative deal for federal air traffic controllers was reached on Sept. 25, and seven more deals need to be reached.

When collective agreements are reached, they usually date back to the expiry of the last contract—in this case, most expired in 2014—so they require retroactive payments. These payments may require pay advisers to extract data from the government’s previous pay system, a time-consuming process. Some cases have to be processed manually.

“To address this, we have tripled the number of compensation advisers dedicated to implementing collective agreements,” said an explanatory note accompanying the Nov. 1 update to the government’s online “dashboard” showing the status of Phoenix cases (which the government calls “transactions”).

Overall, 79,000 open cases came into the Public Service Pay Centre between Sept. 20 and Oct. 18, and 71,000 cases were processed. Compensation advisers manually processed 27,000 collective agreement cases within the same period. As well, the Phoenix system automatically processed about 21,000 collective agreement cases. In total, 119,000 cases were processed in this period.

The previous Conservative government decided to move to the Phoenix pay system to centralize payroll for federal public servants, but since the Liberals implemented it a year and a half ago it has left many employees overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all.

It was supposed to save the government $70-million annually, but the cost to fix the system has been more than $400-million. The government has not given a timeline on when Phoenix will be fixed, however unions are saying it will be at least a year or two before the pay system is stabilized and able to spit out regular pay cheques without problems.

Despite the number of collective agreement cases processed, the Treasury Board admitted to the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) that it would not meet six collective agreement implementation deadlines. The two federal public service unions are filing complaints with the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board in the coming days to be compensated for the missed deadlines. 

“[To] be very clear, hundreds of thousands of public servants have been paid pursuant to these collective agreements, just unfortunately not all of them,” said Ms. Qualtrough.

As well, a collective agreement update noted the government has begun making payments to employees not represented by a union. Federal human resources administrators and managers started receiving their salary increases and retroactive payments on Oct. 18.

“Salary increases and retroactive payments for employees in Administrative Services (AS), Information Services (IS) and Welfare Programs (WP) senior excluded positions are expected to start in late November,” said the update.

The statement added that employees in these groups also started receiving lump-sum payments of $650 at the beginning of October. This payment is the equivalent to the signing bonus given to employees represented by PSAC, said the update.

The percentage of non-collective agreement cases that met service standards was 60 per cent in October, which went down slightly from the 62 per cent reported in August. The explanatory statement from the Public Service Pay Centre said it expects the percentage to continue to fluctuate as the implementation of collective agreements continues.

@emilyhaws

ehaws@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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