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Phoenix pay system backlog increased by 20,000 cases this month

By Emily Haws      

The number of backlogged cases rose from 237,000 in August to 257,000 this month, as the processing of new contracts proved to be 'more complex and time consuming than initially anticipated.' But the government says it's increased staff to deal with the problem.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough, pictured left, is the minister responsible for the Phoenix pay system. She inherited the problem-plagued file in an Aug. 28 cabinet shuffle from retiring minister Judy Foote.
The Hill Times file photograph

The backlog of cases carried out through the Phoenix pay system rose 20,000 in the last month because processing pay changes from new collective agreements proved to be “more complex and time consuming than initially anticipated,” according to a Sept. 29 government update.

The number of pay changes waiting to be processed grew from 237,000 on Aug. 23 to 257,000 as of Sept. 20, according to the government’s latest monthly update on how it’s tackling the problem-plagued system that issues paycheques to federal public servants.

One person may have more than one open case, but Radio-Canada recently reported that as of Aug. 8 nearly half of the 313,734 federal public servants paid through Phoenix had been waiting at least a month to have their complaints dealt with.

It’s the second time in as many months that the backlog has grown, after it started out this summer getting smaller. Between June and the end of July, the backlog had been pared back by 37,000 cases to 228,000, but the number crept up again starting in August.

This month’s increase is a “result of our current focus on processing collective agreement payments, which has proven more complex and time consuming than initially anticipated,” said an explanatory note accompanying the Sept. 29 update to the government’s online “dashboard” showing the status of Phoenix cases (what the government calls “transactions”).

The problem-plagued Phoenix pay system was launched in February 2016 as a way to standardize the way public servants are paid. Since then it has caused many public servants to be overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all. The system was supposed to save the government $7-million annually, but so far the Liberals have sunk in $400-million trying to fix it.

In the last several months, 19 new collective agreements between the federal government and public service unions have been signed, with eight more to go within core federal departments and agencies. When collective agreements are signed, the government must follow through on them by paying out signing bonuses, salary increases, and retroactive payments within a given timeframe.

To date, another government webpage explained, about 184,000 employees have received about $615-million through these payments. But putting in place some of the pay changes from the new collective agreements has also proven to be tough.

“Retroactive payments associated with collective agreements date back several years and require that data be extracted from the government’s former pay system. To address this, we have had to nearly triple the number of compensation advisers dedicated to collective agreements, which means we have fewer staff working on new and existing transactions at the Public Service Pay Centre,” said the explanatory note.

The Public Service Pay Centre can normally process about 80,000 cases per month. The pay centre received 88,000 cases between Aug. 23 and Sept. 20, and processed 68,000, according to the updated dashboard. The month before, from July 26 to Aug. 23, it took in 80,000 cases and processed 71,000.

But also in the last month, Phoenix automatically processed 114,000 collective agreement cases and pay centre staff manually processed 11,000 collective agreement cases. This means in total 193,000 cases were processed in September.

“While some retroactive payments are issued automatically, complex and time-consuming manual processing is required in certain situations,” such as for employees on maternity or paternal leave, or on pre-retirement leave, according to the government’s online explanatory note about the collective agreements.

Not all the news is bad, though. The Sept. 29 update says the percentage of transactions processed within acceptable time standards increased from 49 per cent in August to 62 per cent in September. The target is 95 per cent. This is largely because there are more staff processing the implementation of collective agreements.

“We expect the percentage of transactions that meet service standards to continue to fluctuate as the implementation of collective agreements continues,” said the update.

The government is in the process of hiring more compensation advisers.

In May, the government announced it would spend $142-million over two years in part to help fill in training and human resources gaps in the system. Most recently, the government announced it is moving 29 information technology experts to help fix what one union representative said was the 1,000 Phoenix system bugs. They will work alongside 30 current federal IT professionals and IBM contractors to get Phoenix back on track.

As well, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents the compensation advisers processing the Phoenix cases, and the government agreed to a memorandum of understanding that gives incentives to current and future compensation advisers.

The advisers will now get a one-time payment of $4,000, a temporary increase in overtime compensation from time and a half to double time, as well as the ability to carry over vacation and compensatory leave. The $142-million cash infusion in May was meant in part to hire 200 temporary compensation advisers on top of the 300 already hired to fix the issues.

ehaws@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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