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Deputy minister Lemay predicts ‘multiple points of failure’ on Phoenix with 8,000 cases remaining

By Rachel Aiello      

Phoenix was projected to save the feds $67.2-million a year. Now the government's projected $50-million cost to fix the system is expected to grow, as the temporary pay centres the department formed in Gatineau, Que., Montreal, Winnipeg, and Shawinigan, Que., are staying open indefinitely.

'There’s probably going to be multiple points of failure,' said deputy minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada Marie Lemay (pictured here in a file photo) during a press conference in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday. The Hill Times photo by Sam Garcia

The deputy minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada is predicting that once investigated, the implementation of the Phoenix pay system will have “multiple points of failure,” as months after the initial deadline, thousands of employees are still waiting for their pay issues to be resolved.

“In any big large transformation project, there’s multiple points of failure. Put it in the context of a federal environment, there’s probably going to be multiple points of failure,” said deputy minister Marie Lemay during a press conference in the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, speaking on the pending accountability over the pay system’s rollout.

Her comments on Wednesday morning were part of a regular technical update on the ongoing issues with the problematic new Phoenix pay system for federal employees.

“I don’t know that there’s going to be one point of accountability. In projects like this, especially with an organization like ours, when you have the equivalent of 100 companies basically implementing a system,” Ms. Lemay said, adding that the promised internal Treasury Board evaluation of the project has yet to get underway. The auditor general will also be auditing the department’s execution of the new payroll program procured under the last government and implemented under Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote (Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, Nlfd.) between February and April 2016.

Ms. Lemay said there are around 8,000 employees with cases remaining in the backlog, some of which have multiple outstanding cases. No new deadline has been set to resolve these pay issues. Initially the department had pledged to have the backlog resolved by Oct. 31.

The department officials were finally able to say that 14,000 employees have come forward with pay issues since July, when the initial 82,000 backlog was captured.

The department estimates there around two-and-a-half months in volume of work left to do to get through the backlog, which was largely untouched during the last two months. Ms. Lemay said this was an intentional decision to pivot focus away to make sure the year-end tax issues could be focused on.

Ms. Lemay said the department has spent the last few months working to prepare the Phoenix system for upcoming pay events, like the retroactive payment of the Canada Revenue Agency employee’s collective bargaining agreement, reached in August 2015; and to implement the provincial and federal tax rate changes that came into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

Going forward, the department will also be automating acting-pay transactions, which right now is done manually and is taking up about 25 per cent of the Phoenix employees’ workload. The department has already automated overtime transactions.

So far, a total of 311 compensation claims have been received, 79 of which were for costs totalling more than $500.

Phoenix was projected to save the feds $67.2-million a year. Now the government’s projected $50-million cost to fix the system is expected to grow, as the temporary pay centres the department formed in Gatineau, Que., Montreal, Winnipeg, and Shawinigan, Que., are staying open indefinitely.

As well, an additional 130 new pay specialists are working through their training. To deal with the cases, the department hired about 200 additional employees for the temporary pay centres in the fall. According to a department official, 40 of the new trainees were hired a year ago and will be finished training by the end of the month. At that time, they will become full compensation advisers at the pay centre in Miramichi. There were 90 new trainees hired in October, who will begin the hands-on portion of their training this month, meaning they will be able to provide additional help going forward.

In the lead-up to Phoenix’s launch, the government laid off “over half of the compensation advisers,” Ms. Foote 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.

“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 at the time.

In addition to the temporary pay centres and new compensation advisers they’ve hired, the government had set up a call centre to take employees’ pay queries.

Federal employees have told The Hill Times that those call centre employees are unable to connect them to the pay centre, and are only able to fill out a form noting their issues, which results in long delays before the employees are able to get their issues resolved or questions about their files answered.

Ms. Lemay said on Tuesday that she’s working with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and the Professional Institute of the Public Service—the main unions representing federal employees—to come up with a better solution to have employee issues heard.

“It’s definitely not the way it should work … we need to be able to service the employees and not just pick up the phone,” said Ms. Lemay.

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