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‘Don’t forgive them and don’t forget,’ PSAC leader says Phoenix could be 2019 election issue

By Derek Abma      

Gatineau MP Steven MacKinnon downplays the role Phoenix could play in the next election, but says it’s a common concern among constituents.

MPs such Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who represents Ottawa-area riding, might have to answer for the Phoenix fiasco during the 2019 election campaign, says PSAC president Robyn Benson. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The head of the biggest federal public service union in the country says the Phoenix pay system problems, which haven’t gone away yet, could end up being an election issue in 2019, particularly for Liberals in the National Capital Region, where many public servants reside.

“It would not surprise me that this would be an election issue,” Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) national president Robyn Benson told The Hill Times in an interview last week. “When I speak our members, my members, I say to them, ‘Don’t forgive them and don’t forget.’”

PSAC president Robyn Benson says Phoenix problems are not going away or going to be forgotten any time soon. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Ms. Benson said it seems plausible that Phoenix problems could carry into next year, and there will certainly be many federal public servants at tax time next year who will be paying more because incorrect T4 slips issued this year meant they paid less in taxes.

She said there are public servants who have delayed retirements because they didn’t think their pension plans would be at correct levels due to Phoenix errors.

“Think about this, you have now for this past year have had an upheaval in your paycheque,” she said. “Sometimes you were paid right. Sometimes you weren’t. Sometimes you think you may have been paid right, but you might not have been because, of course, they didn’t bother to have correct pay stubs the way we used to, so you couldn’t track anything. … So now I have members who are not able to retire because they haven’t had the correct deductions for their pensions.”

Ms. Benson also said it was “nauseating” that, despite all the problems Phoenix had with rank-and-file workers when their pay levels or work statuses changed, it was able to get about 340 executives in Public Services and Procurement Canada—some of whom would have been responsible for Phoenix in some capacity—about $4.8-million in performance bonuses.

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the second-biggest public service union, said she understands there is little MPs can do regarding Phoenix, but Parliamentarians from the Ottawa area might nonetheless have to answer for it during the next election campaign.

“I think anyone whose life has been torn apart by this honest mistake. … I’m not sure everyone’s going to be forgiving,” she said. “But I have to admit, knowing all that I know, there isn’t much MPs can do to fix our members’ payroll issues.

“But they’ve all collectively demanded a fix. The media’s been very good to keep this issue public. No one could deny that pressure has been put on politically, and if it was all just about political pressure, this issue would be solved already.”

Liberal MP for Gatineau Steven MacKinnon says public servants understand the efforts going on ‘behind the scenes’ to fix Phoenix problems. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Liberal MP Steven MacKinnon (Gatineau, Que.), who’s parliamentary secretary to Public Services Minister Judy Foote Bonavista-Burin-Trinity, N.L.), downplayed how much of a role the Phoenix issue will be with the many public servants in his riding, which he said accounts for about 20 per cent of his constituents.

“I think public servants understand that everything possible is being done to remedy this issue,” he said. “They see and they know the people who are involved in this. They hear. I think the informal networks in the public service keep people very abreast of not only the kind of the work that’s going on behind the scenes but also of the interventions of the prime minister, of Minister Foote, and of Minister Carr, and others, and our full willingness to engage and get our hands dirty as we work through these issues.”

Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr (Winnipeg South Centre, Man.) is filling in for Ms. Foote, who’s taken a leave of absence for personal reasons.

Pressed on how constituents might be feeling about the Phoenix issue by the time the next election comes around, Mr. MacKinnon added: “I haven’t thought about that kind question because I don’t think anybody processes the issue that way. I think there’s a public-policy challenge, a public-administration challenge that’s before us … and we wake up every day with a resolve to fix this issue, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Still, Mr. MacKinnon said he hears a lot about Phoenix from constituents.

“It’s very rare that during a public outing I don’t get approached by a public servant with a Phoenix issue,” he said, adding that his constituency office also gets a lot of calls on this.

He said the issue has emerged as one of the most common problems brought up by constituents, being right up there with things like immigration and passports.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.) said in an emailed statement from her office about Phoenix: “The pay issues currently being experienced by public servants are unacceptable. The government is working collaboratively at all levels to resolve them, and ensuring all employees are paid the money they earned is our priority. As MP for Ottawa Centre, I am actively engaging with constituents affected by these pay issues and am working extremely hard on their behalf to ensure their issues are resolved as quickly as possible.”

Staff in Ms. McKenna’s office did not have data on how many pubic servants lived in her riding. When asked if she’s worried about this becoming an election issue, her office director Lucy Hargreaves replied that Ms. McKenna’s immediate concern is getting the problems fixed.

Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.), the only non-Liberal representing any part of Ottawa or Gatineau federally, did not respond to an interview request.

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. Efficiencies realized from this technology were supposed to save the federal government about $70-million a year.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) announced last week that savings generated from Phoenix, for the next two years, would be kept by departments to ensure employees are paid proper amounts. As well, he said financial help of up to $200 per worker would be provided for those who had to hire accountants to sort through tax problems created by Phoenix.

As well, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) announced the government has created a “ministerial working group,” led by Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale (Regina-Wascana, Sask.), tasked with solving Phoenix problems. The group also includes Ms. McKenna, Mr. Brison, Mr. Carr, and Finance Minister Bill Morneau (Toronto Centre, Ont.).

Union leaders said they blame both the Liberal and Conservative parties for what’s gone on with Phoenix. Ms. Benson said the Conservative government was foolish to lay off 2,700 compensation advisers before the system become operational (Mr. MacKinnon put that figure at 700.) Yet union leaders also say they warned the Liberal government before Phoenix went live that it was not ready to go.

“We were pretty vocal at the start of this project, as were other unions, about the fact that it was doomed to failure before it was actually in this horrible state, and this [Liberal] government did not heed our words and went full-steam ahead,” Ms. Daviau said.

There are mixed signs regarding progress in fixing the Phoenix problem. An online dashboard set up Public Services and Procurement Canada shows the number of transactions having gone to the pay centre tasked with dealing Phoenix problem that were taking longer than its targeted times to process them was 284,000 at the end of March. That number was unchanged from a month earlier. However, a note on the website said this included about 16,000 transactions for which payments had been made but had not been cleared from the system.

The way the cases are sorted on this website reflects how most problems involve workers whose employment or pay status has changed.

The percentage of problems involving parental leave being solved within the standard period of 20 days was at 95 per cent compared to 19 per cent at the end of the previous month, the website said.

Over a month’s time, the success rate has risen to 42 per from 28 per cent for pay problems involving employee transfers being solved within a standard of 45 days.

It went to 24 from 17 per cent among for those who had left the public service getting their pay problems solved within a standard of 20 days.

It had inched up to 29 per cent from 28 per cent for those returning from leave, which also has a 20-day standard.

The rate for solving problems for people in acting positions was unchanged at nine per cent within a 30-day standard, and it had gone to 46 per cent from 33 per cent for people in the category of “other,” which has a 20-day standard.

There were, however, some regressions. That rate for solving disability-related pay problems fell to 37 per cent as of March 31 from 43 per cent a month earlier in terms of being cleared within a 20-day window.

The success rate for the promotions category, which has a 30-day standard, dropped to 21 per cent from 24 per cent. For new hires, the success rate fell to 22 per cent from 24 per cent, in terms of being solved within 20 days.

Public Services officials say, theoretically, no one should be going months without any kind of paycheque since all departments are able to cut cheques on an emergency basis. Most of the issues that continue involve incorrect amounts, they say.

Mr. MacKinnon said measures put in place early on in the Phoenix pay crisis “have largely, if not eliminated, have virtually eliminated these issues where people are going without pay. There are provisions for salary advances. That system is working very well. There are provisions for coming to the aid of all public servants where income is not coming in.”

dabma@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

Targets for achieving a ‘steady state’ in which Phoenix pay problems are solved within established standard time frames 95% of the time:

Promotions—this summer

New hires—this spring

Departed employees—this spring

Disabilities—April (as targeted at end of March)

Parental leave—achieved in March

Returns from leave—this spring

Acting positions—this spring

Employee transfers—this spring

Other—this summer

Source: Public Services and Procurement Canada

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