News

MPs, staff have ‘a few issues’ with Phoenix, but House not scrapping it: Speaker’s Office

The House has not yet complied a list of those affected. The Senate, meanwhile, is looking for a new service provider, after it said more than 350 identified pay errors were generated by the payroll system.

The office of House Speaker Geoff Regan, pictured at a Nov. 2 Board of Internal Economy meeting, says the House is not looking to follow the Senate's lead and ditch the Phoenix pay system.The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

PUBLISHED :Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017 12:00 AM

The House of Commons is not looking to opt out of the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system, the Speaker’s office says, despite some MPs and their staff reporting problems.

“There have been a few issues with pay but the House administration does not have a record of the total amounts related to underpayment or overpayments resulting from system-generated errors,” said Heather Bradley, the director of communications to House Speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.), in an emailed statement Nov. 3.

“The [House of Commons] is not looking to change the current framework or arrangement for the provision of pay services, currently provided by [Public Services and Procurement Canada],” she said.

Last month, the Senate posted a request for proposals for “a service provider to assume responsibility for payroll processing…for all the employees of the Senate of Canada.” It closes Nov. 16 and so far there are three interested suppliers.

  

Several MPs told The Hill Times they had heard of MPs and staff having Phoenix issues, but few could give concrete examples.

Ms. Bradley said the House administration is working closely with the public services department to ensure timely and accurate pay, and a team of House pay advisers is in place to help MPs with pay issues.

The Senate and the House first started having payroll processing done through Phoenix in 2016, along with dozens of federal departments. The new system was supposed to streamline the payroll of the government’s approximately 300,000 employees, but last week the government estimated more than half of public servants are experiencing some form of pay issue. Phoenix was meant to save the government $70-million annually, but the cost to fix the system has been more than $400-million.

Last week, the government reported a backlog of 265,000 Phoenix-related open cases above its pay centre’s normal workload, as of Oct. 18. Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.) blamed the increase on the implementation of 19 collective agreements, as pay advisers need to retrieve data by hand from the government’s old pay system to process retroactive pay.

  

“We’ve hired more compensation advisers. We’re training more people. We’re improving the technological glitches,” she said, adding the government is committed to fixing Phoenix, though she offered no timeline.

Compensation advisers at the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi, N.B., and other satellite offices that use the Phoenix software generally administer federal public servants’ payroll. Payroll for MPs and their staff is administered through the Phoenix software, but their compensation advisers are in the House of Commons. The payroll for ministers’ offices is administered in the same way as their respective departments.

Ashley Michnowski, press secretary to Ms. Qualtrough, confirmed some ministers’ office staff are experiencing Phoenix issues. She would not say how many were affected.

“It would be inappropriate to disclose information about specific offices,” she said Nov. 3 in an emailed statement.

  

NDP public services and procurement critic Erin Weir, pictured here at a Phoenix rally in October, loaned a staff member money last year because they were waiting for Phoenix-related pay issues to be resolved. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Anne Marie Keeley, chief of staff to Chief Opposition Whip Conservative MP Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Hope, B.C.), said in an emailed statement their office had heard from MPs who have experienced pay issues but could not comment on individual cases. She added there have been no staff cases reported.

The whips’ offices for the NDP and the Liberals did not respond to requests for comment by deadline. 

Nasha Brownridge, president of UFCW Canada Local 232, which represents about 250 NDP House staff, did not have exact numbers because some members go directly to the House’s human resources department to sort out their pay. Ms. Brownridge said she experienced problems earlier this year when she had no benefits for several months because she transferred from being an MP staffer to working for NDP caucus services.

“There was a clerical error, which had it not been for Phoenix could have been fixed very easily, but the system kept attempting to terminate the changes that [compensation advisers] were putting in,” she said.

She added there is some anxiety amongst members around taking new jobs because of Phoenix.

The Hill Times contacted numerous MPs who have recently experienced pay changes because of shifting roles within committees. The chair of a committee receives $11,165 on top of their MP salary, and vice-chairs receive $5,684. 

Karen Vecchio chairs the Status of Women Committee on Oct. 26. Ms. Vecchio has not yet received her pay increase since becoming the committee chair Oct. 3. However, she said she is more concerned about the pay issues public servants face than her own pay. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Karen Vecchio (Elgin-Middlesex-London, Ont.) has not yet received her raise as chair of the House Status of Women Committee. However, she said via email she is more concerned about the pay issues public servants face than her own pay.

“It truly is a recent change, especially since the delay in the election of the chair, so I was not expecting it yet due to the administrative work and current issues,” she said. She started on the job Oct. 3. 

In August 2016, The Hill Times reported the staff of at least two MPs—Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen (Kingston and the Islands, Ont.) and NDP MP Erin Weir (Regina-Lewvan, Sask.)—were experiencing pay woes.

It took several months for one of Mr. Gerretsen’s Hill staff to receive their first paycheque, while several of Mr. Weir’s constituency staff members were not paid on time. Mr. Weir gave one of his staff members a personal loan while they waited for it to be sorted out. He was paid back in the fall of 2016.

Mr. Weir, the vice-chair of the House Government Operations Committee, does not think the House should ditch Phoenix.

“A big part of the problem with Phoenix was the idea that we could replace complex federal government payrolls with off-the-shelf software…so I don’t think the solution is even more contracting out,” he said.

“I think what we need to do is rebuild a publicly administered payroll system for all federal employees, and I think the House of Commons should be on the same pay system as the rest of the federal public service.”

 

Upper Chamber looking to ditch Phoenix

Alison Korn, the issues management and media relations adviser for the Senate, said it chose to leave Phoenix because the program caused a series of overpayments and underpayments for its employees.

She noted all pay problems have been with staff, not Senators. Since Phoenix’s implementation, the Senate has had more than 350 identified pay errors generated by the system, Ms. Korn said in an emailed statement, adding an employee may have more than one.

Ms. Korn said during the first two quarters of 2017-18, the Senate has not observed significant improvement in the system’s performance.

“The lack of support, the limited access, and the system issues continue to result in inaccurate pay being issued to a number of employees,” said Ms. Korn via email. “During the last two quarters, the system has generated more than 100 over- and underpayments.”

@emilyhaws

ehaws@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times