New Federal pay system generates huge backlog

A meeting will be held today to question senior Canadian government officials about the controversial new Phoenix payroll system, after ruling Liberal members of the government operations committee approved further study of the new program.

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The new payroll system has left about 80,000 federal public servants with problems with their pay. Opposition parties demanded the meeting after they received numerous complaints from constituents without any response from Judy Foote, the minister responsible for public services and procurement.Steven Blaney , procurement critic of the Conservative opposition, said: "While the Liberals continue to dodge this serious issue, both opposition parties will work together to find a solution to this problem."
Even Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the Phoenix pay problem "was unacceptable." The situation has reached a point where even four Liberal MPs agreed with the opposition so that department officials, federal employees and union representatives will appear before a parliamentary committee to attempt to find out the source of the problem.
The four MPs wrote a letter to committee clerk Leif-Erik Aune, saying:"While we understand that the government is working hard to address the issues with the system, we feel that it is important for committee members to get a fuller understanding of the situation." To hold the emergency meeting four members of the committee had to request it but there are only three opposition members of the committee.
While Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi backed the call for the meeting, she claimed the opposition parties were grandstanding. She said she signed off on the meeting to call the opposition's bluff. She claimed that an examination of Phoenix will show it was the former ruling Conservatives who rubber stamped a "buggy" system in 2015 after warnings about it. PM Trudeau also tried to shift blame for the situation onto the Conservatives, as did Treasury Board Chair Scott Brison, who also claimed Conservatives had allowed the system to deteriorate.
Tom Lukiwski , the Conservative chair of the government operations committee, said: "Obviously, it's an extremely serious issue. Public servants should never be going weeks or perhaps months without pay ... it's unconscionable. everyone agrees on that, Ultimately, [Phoenix] will be the best way forward. There's just so many kinks." He said he was not sure whether reconvening his committee was the best forum to discuss the issue. The Phoenix system has been rolled out in phases after Trudeau's Liberals took power last year. The largest union representing federal public servants, the Public Service Alliance (PSA), warned the government that there would be problems.
The first phase of the rollout began in February and the PSA said thousands of its members had problems back then. In April, the union urged the Liberals not to move ahead with the next phase. In spite of this, the government said that only 300 employees had made formal complaints about the system which were almost all technical issues that had been resolved.
The pay center operations had moved to Miramichi New Brunswick after the Harper government shut down the long-gun registry. This would have left thousands of federal employees in the town without jobs. The Harper government also cut the number of compensation advisers from almost 2,700 to just 442.
The opposition New Democratic Party was critical of both Liberals and Conservatives. Procurement critic Erin Weir said: "The Conservatives were wrong to imagine that the federal government could effectively replace its payroll systems with off-the-shelf software from IBM operated by a single pay centre, relocated to Miramichi for political reasons. The Liberals were wrong to implement Phoenix this year even after employees at Miramichi warned that the system was not ready."He accused the Trudeau government of trying to shift blame to the Conservatives after ignoring complaints from the union and employees for months.
The deputy minister for public services and procurement, Marie Lemay, said the government had grossly underestimated the time and training needed to have the new system running satisfactorily. She claimed that the government would hire temporary compensation adviser specialists and also make technical improvements within the system. Over 700 public servants have complained about not receiving pay. Another 1,100 have not received long term disability or severance payment. More than 80,000 employees owed pay for extra duties, overtime, or pay adjustments face problems.
A prime example of someone who is having problems with Phoenix is Kathryn McCalder. She was a former federal compensation officer. She spent the last part of her 40-year government career as a compensation adviser and compensation officer — helping other employees get money they were owed as quickly as she could. Hers was one of the jobs that the Conservatives eliminated after moving the operations to Miramichi. She chose to retire at 64. She calculates she is owed over $100,000 in termination benefits
McCalder claims she is owed $42,652 in severance pay, $51,750 for transition support, and $23,535 in vacation pay. After receiving a small.sum she is still owed over a $100,000. She said: "I'm hurt because I think after all the years I put in as a government employee, I shouldn't be having this treatment. It's just causing me unease right now. That's a huge chunk of money to be forgotten about." She said that with over 80,000 cases in the lineup with some not even receiving a salary, her case may be forgotten.
The government is trying to rehire on a temporary basis compensation experts and pay advisers to help out at a new temporary pay unit at Gatineau Quebec but many of those approached are turning the offer down. One anonymous worker who turned down the offer of three or four months temporary employment said:"It would break my heart to see so many people not getting paid. I would work crazy hours. I have to think of my health too. The way they let us go at the end was very ruthless. All of us suffered from that. I just can't do it." The worker said compensation advisers had warned the government about serious issues with the Phoenix system from the beginning pointing out that the system simply was not customized enough to deal with the complex rules and exemptions.
The Liberal government added 40 more additional staff at Miramichi, but this is a far cry from 2,700 in the original system. The PSA notes that 72 employees are on leave and believes 50 of the 72 on leave have long term leave because of stress. The minister Judy Foote put the number on sick leave at 28 and called it a serious issue.
McCalder received an email asking her to help with the backlog. She did not accept the offer saying she did not want to get wrapped up in the mess. She did suggest that those who are getting paid normally using the Phoenix system should continue with it but that problem cases should be solved for now using the old system, until issues in the Phoenix system are fixed. She concluded: "My best wishes to all the people who are doing pay in Phoenix. I hope one day you get the satisfaction I did when I was able to help out people."
Managers of the system decided to recruit workers from a temporary staff agency to staff their call center handling inquiries from the 80,000 public employees having problems with the system. However, the employees, are simply given scripts to answer questions. They have no special knowledge of the issues. Some of them are telling callers it could take until October until all issues are resolved. One script tells them to say that if they had informed the government of pay problems before June 1, there would be some sort of resolution by October!
There are huge security concerns about the system as well. Two breaches of public servants private data have already happened including names, pay amounts, and "Personal Record Identifiers." The people from the temporary employee center are being hired with no security checks.


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