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‘It’s a nightmare’: MPs push for more help for riding offices flooded with dozens of Phoenix calls

By Emily Haws      

The public services minister promised a plan to boost riding-office support within a couple weeks, but six weeks later MPs say they're still waiting.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough speaks to her deputy minister, Marie Lemay, at a House Government Operations Committee meeting on Nov. 28. During the meeting, Ms. Qualtrough said she would get back to MPs with a plan to boost supports for constituency offices dealing with Phoenix pay system complaints.
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Members of Parliament are growing increasingly frustrated with what some see as a lack of government support to their constituency offices to help residents affected by the error-ridden Phoenix pay system, and the opposition Conservatives say Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough has yet to follow through on a commitment to boost resources.

When opposition MPs questioned Ms. Qualtrough (Delta, B.C.) during a House Government Operations and Estimates Committee hearing on Nov. 28 about problems they were having helping constituents get government responses on Phoenix cases, she said would get back to MPs about improving communication with and support for MPs’ offices “within a couple of weeks.” At the meeting, she added she was hopeful that the Phoenix pay system would be at a steady state—in other words: paying public servants correctly, on time—by the end of 2018.

Conservative MP Kelly McCauley (Edmonton West, Alta.) wrote a letter to Ms. Qualtrough’s office on Jan. 8 to see what she had done about that commitment, following up with an email shortly after. A week after sending the letter, her office had yet to respond to either communication, he said.

Conservative MP Kelly McCauley serves on the House Government Operations Committee. He is frustrated with the lack of support for constituency offices dealing with an influx of Phoenix pay system complaints. Photograph courtesy of the House of Commons

“You and your deputy minister told the committee you would be getting back to us within two weeks on developing a solution for the gridlock the Members’ Offices are facing when seeking guidance on Phoenix issues from constituents,” Mr. McCauley’s letter reads. “It’s now been six weeks and we have yet to hear from your office.”

Ms. Qualtrough told the committee at the time she couldn’t commit to a specific plan but wanted to look at options. When pressed by NDP MP and committee vice-chair Erin Weir (Regina-Lewvan, Sask.) for a hotline similar to the one MPs’ offices use for government help on constituents’ immigration cases, she agreed the lines of communication needed to be opened, but wouldn’t commit to a hotline. She agreed it was unacceptable that MPs were not getting the support they needed.

“Every resource we pull off the backlog is not addressing the backlog,” she said. “We need to methodically deal with the backlog using the priorities and lenses we’ve created.”

Ashley Michnowski, a spokesperson for Ms. Qualtrough, said her department, Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), is finalizing a mechanism for MPs to report and ask about constituents’ pay issues.

“[We] will be officially notifying Members of Parliament in the coming weeks,” she said in an emailed statement on Jan. 15. “Employees can also get help online, by submitting a feedback form and by calling our contact centre.”

The Phoenix pay system was supposed to streamline the pay of the government’s roughly 259,000 public servants, but since its launch in February 2016 it has left over half of them overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all. The backlog is sitting at 589,000 open cases, called transactions, as of Nov. 29.

Constituency staff members currently call Ms. Qualtrough’s ministerial office when they have a Phoenix case. Her staff handles the calls, MPs told The Hill Times, but it can be frustrating and time consuming.

Mr. McCauley isn’t surprised he hasn’t gotten a response to his letter, and said he doesn’t expect to get one. “They just don’t seem to care,” he said, regarding the Phoenix file. The support for MPs was a “simple, nonpartisan” way to solve a problem many MPs are experiencing, he said.

The pay system was supposed to save the government about $70-million annually, but so far the Liberals have spent about $400-million trying to fix it. Auditor general Michael Ferguson said in his fall report on the Phoenix pay system that fixing it would cost far more than the $540-million the government planned to spend.

Cases being resolved, but taking longer than usual

On the same day as Ms. Qualtrough’s testimony, senior PSPC officials testified at the House Public Accounts Committee. Conservative MP and committee chair Kevin Sorenson (Battle River-Crowfoot, Alta.) kicked off the meeting by saying Phoenix cases had recently outpaced immigration cases, which usually take up the bulk of staff casework, at his riding office.

Conservative MP and chair of the House Public Accounts Committee Kevin Sorenson said at a Nov. 28 meeting that Phoenix cases have recently outpaced immigration cases at his rural Alberta constituency office. The Hill Times file photograph

Before the fall session of Parliament, Mr. Sorenson has staff members draft a summary of the office’s open cases to give him an idea of his constituents’ issues. He wasn’t sure on the exact number, he said in an interview last week, but was surprised to see the large proportion of Phoenix cases.

He noted that his office has been assigned a Phoenix liaison from Ms. Qualtrough’s office “that my staff does have a good working relationship with, and has been able to get some success with.”

He added his staff has been persistent, and the success has led to people from outside his constituency calling him after speaking to their coworkers. One staff member has received thankful phone calls and flowers delivered to the office from constituents.

He said he had about 40 open cases at the moment. That sentiment was echoed by NDP MP Wayne Stetski (Kootenay-Columbia, B.C.), who has about 20 active cases, and Mr. Weir, who has 35 open cases. Mr. Weir suggested the hotline both for his staff, but also for the sake of the ministerial staff too.

“I think it certainly puts the minister’s staff in a difficult [position], and that’s why with other federal programs there are dedicated hotlines for MPs’ offices and staff,” he said.

Mr. Weir added the minister’s office “sometimes seems like a black hole to our assistants,” but adds it isn’t their fault, as there are few staff members compared to the number of Phoenix calls. This is why it would be helpful to have the hotline connect directly to PSPC or the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi, N.B., which processes the majority of public servants’ pay stubs.

Liberal MP Karen McCrimmon (Kanata-Carleton, Ont.) said her office has about 50 Phoenix cases, with eight coming in since the new year. Being within the National Capital Region, Ms. McCrimmon’s riding is heavily populated with public servants.

Ministerial staff members are responsive if there is a significant underpayment or no payment, she said, but otherwise it is difficult to have cases resolved. One staff member was assigned to Phoenix specifically in September, and if there is a non-critical Phoenix issue, it can be difficult to get updates. For example, instead of having a ministerial staffer call the office back to let them know the case has been closed, it is up to them to follow up.

“It’s not onerous, but it’s something you need to stay on top of,” she said.

Ms. McCrimmon has complained several times to Ms. Qualtrough’s office and Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon (Gatineau, Que.), who is the parliamentary secretary to Ms. Qualtrough. Residents are concerned about how overpayments will affect their 2017 taxes, which she brought forward. On Jan. 15, PSPC released a statement saying it will not collect repayments from overpaid staff until at least July 2018.

Overall, Phoenix isn’t one of her constituents’ major concerns, she said, nor does Phoenix take up the majority of casework in her office.

“Most people with Phoenix kind of go, ‘I get it, but you know, it’s time,'” she said. “They’re patient, but you know, it is time. We need to get this fixed.”

NDP MP Erin Weir addresses hundreds of public servants gathered outside the Prime Minister’s Office to show their disdain for the Phoenix pay system. He has proposed a hotline to support constituency offices dealing with Phoenix pay system complaints. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Mr. MacKinnon, a Liberal MP who also represents an Ottawa-area riding with lots of public servants, was contacted to comment on this article, but his office told The Hill Times that he was away and therefore unavailable to comment.

Terry Beech (Burnaby North-Seymour, B.C.), another Liberal MP, said his office is getting Phoenix-related complaints, but is working with local union members. He was not available for an interview, but in an email called it a frustrating and unfortunate situation, also stating, “I have full confidence in Minister Qualtrough to resolve it.”

Mr. Stetski’s staff members have had some success resolving Phoenix cases, he said, but overall they take longer than others. He supports a hotline if it would get results, but said he’s hesitant to think it would.

Mr. Stetski, the NDP Parks Canada critic due to having four national parks in his riding, said many of the Parks Canada employees are having Phoenix problems. They are usually temporary workers, such as students, or seasonal workers who shift their job classification throughout the year, he said. Workers with job changes or varying hours are the ones most affected by the Phoenix pay problems.

“We are aware of significant concerns particularly around the hot springs in the west, where about 70 per cent of the employees are not being paid properly,” he said. “We were given a regional contact from the minister’s office to deal with Phoenix cases, but we’re having no more success in clearing those files than [before].”

“It’s a nightmare, is what it is…there is a fundamental problem with the Phoenix pay system.”

ehaws@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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