Phoenix Pay System problems persist despite senate report

A few dozen people attended a rally outside Saskatchewan Penitentiary on Feb. 28, 2018 to call on the government to do more to resolve issues with the Phoenix Pay System. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Despite a scathing report on the Phoenix pay debacle released by the Senate last month, and years of fighting over missing and incorrect pay, federal employees are still being put through the ringer, a union representing local federal employees said.

Marianne Hladun, the regional executive vice president of Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) prairies, said little has changed since the Senate committee report was put out on July 31, 2018.

PSAC represents federal employees in Prince Albert, including at Saskatchewan Penitentiary.

Phoenix is the name for a pay system developed by the Conservative government, but implemented by the Liberals. It has been marred in complaints about workers not being paid, not being paid on time or not being paid correctly.

The Senate report said the pay system has cost nearly $1 billion in unplanned expenditures so far and is on track to hit $2.2 billion by 2023. Meanwhile, the system is still unable to reliably pay nearly 300,000 public servants. Over 150,000 of those workers have had pay problems, and as of May 30, there were 596,000 outstanding pay-action requests.

The Senate called on the government to set targets for the time to process outstanding pay requests and to report to parliament on options and costs for replacing the system.

“The committee is dismayed that the project proceeded with minimal independent oversight, including from central agencies, and that no one has accepted responsibility for the failure of Phoenix or has been held to account,” read a press release accompanying the report.

‘The committee also found that the Phoenix debacle is in part the result of a fundamental management cultural problem within the public service, where an ethos persists that resists sharing negative information, runs away from risks, and avoids responsibility when mistakes occur. The government needs to move away from a culture that plays down bad news and avoids responsibility to one that encourages employee engagement feedback and collaboration.”

At the time the report was released, the federal government said it was reviewing the Senate’s findings.

So far though, workers haven’t seen much of a difference.

“The only thing that has come forward since is a request for proposals (RFP) for ending the Phoenix system. The closing date for bids to fix Phoenix is August 24, 2020,” Hladun said.

“As much as we appreciate the Senate report and the fact that they acknowledge the problems and that it wasn’t handled properly, and no one was made accountable for it; we’re not seeing that the government is taking the issue seriously.”

The pay problems that have long plagued the system have continued.

“We have a number of employees who just randomly will not get paid this week,” Hladun said.

Additionally, she said, while the union has negotiated access to emergency pay, employees at times have difficulties accessing that.

“We negotiated that if someone does not get a paycheck, they can request emergency pay and that emergency pay would not be clawed back until they have three stable paychecks. Then, it would be paid back in small increments and they would be notified when that would start,” she said.

“I still hear from members that they didn’t get paid, they asked for emergency pay, and then the next paycheck is gone to pay off the emergency pay.”

Problems keep popping up, Hladun said. While some employees do get paid, many who do are missing years worth of overtime or aren’t receiving their negotiated pay increases.

“As one problem gets resolved, another one seems to pop up,” Hladun said.

“Every day we still hear of new situations popping up.”

The fact that the solution is still at least two years away doesn’t sit well with Hladun. The RFP was issued last Friday and includes both measures to stabilize the current system and impose a new one.

“Stabilizing the Government of Canadas (GoC) current pay system (Phoenix) remains a top priority and continues to be carried out by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) and Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBS) integrated team,” the document says.

“While recent information indicates the current pay system is showing some signs of stabilizing, a longer-term, sustainable, end-to-end solution needs to be explored for an HR and pay solution.”

It calls for private sector support for both stabilizing the current system and creating a new one. Stabilization, in the request, includes lowering the backlog, training and automation, along with improving user experience, and improved HR processes. It notes that “some private sector vendors” have been in place and some initiatives already in place to help the government begin work in “some of the categories” highlighted in the document.

“There are a number of things in the bid they’re looking for help with, including training employees currently. There’s no logic to the bid that’s been put out,” Hladun said.

“If it doesn’t close for two years, I honestly don’t know if they have a timeline in mind to actually fix the system so that people can get paid for what they’re owed. Hladun said that as the problem has continued over the last two years, more and more members of the union are having their lives upended. A survey of the union’s prairie members in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba indicated over half of employees have had some pay issues. About 40 per cent said that because of that uncertainty, they’re postponing vacations, or hockey school, or are unable to take in a movie or go out for dinner.

“The reality is this has been going on for two years,” Hladun said.

“It’s absolutely beyond ludicrous to have people waiting with incorrect pay and the uncertainty of whether you’re going to get paid this week or not.”

Senate recommendations

The Senate made short, medium and long-term recommendations:

– short-term, to support employees by identifying priorities for processing outstanding pay requests and establishing targets

– Assessing whether the government has sufficient compensation advisors and human resources staff and whether they are adequately trained

– Ensuring continued accountability and transparency by reporting annually on costs associated with the pay system

– Medium term, examining whether departments with complex pay requirements, such as shift work, would be better served by solutions other than a centralized pay system

– Long-term, explain to parliament the options to be considered to replace Phoenix, their costs and how it intends to avoid repeating the mistakes of the pay system.