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Feds silent on Phoenix damages, union members are ‘out of patience’

By Emily Haws      

Union leaders say members are ‘frustrated’ as they await a negotiation mandate that’s supposedly on the prime minister’s desk.

Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada president Debi Daviau said part of the holdup is dealing with Phoenix damages is that Public Services and Procurement Canada is having a hard time getting the data to understand the scope of the problem. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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As the public service eagerly awaits a settlement on damages for the Phoenix pay system, Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada president Debi Daviau said she has been told the issue is on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s desk.

“I hear that we’re waiting for a mandate, that the mandate’s with the prime minister now,” she said in an interview last week.

The unions are calling on Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) to give Treasury Board negotiators a mandate, or usually a sum of money to work with in order to compensate those affected by the problem-plagued pay system.

However, part of the issue with getting this mandate is that Public Services and Procurement Canada—the federal paymaster and department in charge of Phoenix—is having difficulty acquiring data to understand how many people were affected, and to what degree.

This makes life difficult for Treasury Board and the comptroller general, as “it’s hard for them to operate on unknown amounts of money,” Ms. Daviau said. PIPSC represents 52,000 government professionals, including the IT staff who have been trying to fix the bugs in the Phoenix software.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not confirm if the matter was before Mr. Trudeau or respond to questions from The Hill Times by deadline.

There are 17 unions seeking compensation for Phoenix damages, including stress, time lost, and financial losses. Negotiations are being headed by a sub-committee of the joint Union-Management Consultation Committee, which consists of both government department and union representatives who work toward fixing Phoenix.

Jean-Luc Ferland, a spokesperson for Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.)—head of the department holding the government’s purse strings and the bureaucracy’s official employer—said the government continues to work with the unions to resolve the issues.

“Out of respect for the work of this union-management group, we won’t comment on its deliberations,” he said of the sub-committee, but didn’t respond to questions about the delay.

Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) national president Chris Aylward agreed the issue was probably on Mr. Trudeau’s desk, but he said he had no idea when a settlement might come.

“Our members want to know; they’re frustrated, they’re frustrated at us because it’s taking so long, and I understand that,” he said. “But we’re not the holdup here.”

The Phoenix pay system has cost the government $1.2-billion so far. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Canadian Association of Professional Employees, which represents government analysts and translators, and the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers echoed the sentiment, saying their members are trying to be understanding but growing impatient.

Ms. Daviau said she prefers to settle Phoenix damages outside of the latest round of contract bargaining that is heating up.

“I’d rather us negotiate a fair deal that’s not considering damages on Phoenix, but might consider other provisions to protect us from another Phoenix fiasco,” she said. “I don’t think they’re the same thing, but at the same time our members are pretty much out of patience.”

The damages structure is a three-tiered system, said Ms. Daviau. The first tier includes all public servants, she said, since they have all been affected either directly by Phoenix, or indirectly due to anxiety about potentially missing pay.

The second tier includes those with moderate pay issues, she said, such as a missing temporary pay raise. The third is for those who have been most severely affected. Despite the structure, Ms. Daviau said those most-severe cases would still have to be assessed individually, due to complexity.

“I think when we first started these negotiations, we were trying to create buckets of settlements, but it became clear really, really quickly that people don’t fall into just one bucket,” she said.

Launched in February 2016, Phoenix was supposed to consolidate pay to save the government $70-million annually, but so far it’s cost more than $1-billion. As of June 27, there were a total of 577,000 open cases, called transactions, at the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi, N.B. This includes 334,000 cases that are beyond the normal workload.

The backlog in pay cases has decreased for the fifth straight month, according to a government website tracking the issue.

The decrease from the backlog of 347,000 reported at the end of May suggests the government’s pay-pod model is working. It has certain groups, or pods, in the pay centre responsible for certain departments, which allows staff to specialize in the pay rules affecting those departments.

The Liberals’ February budget said the government wanted “to address the real mental and emotional stress and unacceptable financial impacts on public servants,” making unions hopeful for a deal, but so far there’s been minimal movement. The 2018 budget committed more than $400-million toward fixing the pay disaster and another $16-million to start building a new pay system.

ehaws@hilltimes.com

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