More problems with Phoenix pay system revealed

Justin Trudeau speaks with employees at the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

Thousands of federal government employees, from summer students to managers, have been underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all since the government began using the Phoenix pay system in 2016. Justin Trudeau's Liberals implemented the payroll system introduced by Stephen Harper's Conservatives, despite warnings about potential problems.

Past and current federal employees rabble has spoken to in recent weeks all express deep conviction for their work. They feel betrayed by an employer who does not pay them properly or, in their view, admit responsibility for the problem. Some expressed frustration with the unions that represent them and wonder what more could be done to solve the situation.

In this series, rabble.ca takes a broader look at Phoenix: the background of the problem; the people affected by it; the responses from unions, and what solutions may be possible.

 

The Phoenix pay system has been in place for more than 18 months, and problems with it only continue to grow. Workers across the country and throughout departments have consistently been overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

The government started paying employees with Phoenix in February 2016, and different departments moved to the system at different times. The Trudeau Liberals implemented the system introduced by the Harper Conservatives, even after being warned about potential problems.

On September 21, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada tabled its annual report. The report includes details about an investigation into privacy concerns related to Phoenix. The commissioner reported there have been at least 11 privacy breaches related to Phoenix involving employees' names, salary information and Personal Record Identifier (PRI) numbers. The investigation concluded that vulnerabilities were government-wide, and resulted from coding errors, inadequate training, and insufficient monitors and controls of the system.

The investigation did not find that any of the personal information was disclosed to people outside of the government. But the commission did find instances where employees looked at the personal information of other government employees in the system.

The report also says the government knew about the potential for privacy concerns as early as January 18, 2016 -- before Phoenix was launched.

The commissioner recommended six ways the government could address these problems. They include developing and implementing controls to monitor and document access to personal information in Phoenix; improving system testing; assessing potential risks with Phoenix regularly and informing affected individuals of the breaches. 

The government said it agreed to the recommendations. But, in the commission's view, it has not done enough to implement all of the recommendations.

Also on September 21, CBC reported on the contract between IBM Canada and the government to create Phoenix. According to the report, IBM was the only company to bid on the project to create one system that would be used for more than 100 government departments and dozens of collective bargaining agreements. IBM landed the deal in 2011 and the job of maintaining and implementing Phoenix is to continue until at least 2019.

The contract has been amended 39 times, bringing the value of the contract to $185 million. It began at $5.7 million. The government claims that the cost of the implementation of Phoenix, $307 million, was two million under budget, according to CBC News.

The government has been slow to release information about the scope of the problems related to the pay system.

On a webpage devoted to the Phoenix situation, the government says it is "working tirelessly to resolve all pay issues as quickly as possible." Yet numbers on the website indicate any resolution is coming at a slow pace. As of August 23, 49 per cent of transactions were being processed within service standards, which vary between 20 and 45 days depending on the type of transaction. While this shows some improvement -- as of July 26 only 35 per cent of transactions were processed within service standards -- it falls vastly short of the government's stated goal of 95 per cent of transactions processed within service standards.

The government has been looking for ways to address the problem. Earlier in September, it sent letters to former compensation officers, asking them to consider returning to help with the problem.

But Public Services and Procurement Canada, the ministry tasked with Phoenix, has been responding to its own challenges. In late August, Judy Foote resigned as minister. Foote had stepped aside from her duties in April, citing family concerns. Carla Qualtrough, formerly the minister of sport and persons with disabilities, has been named to the role.

The government has also been inconsistent in explaining reasons for the continued problems.

It has both praised unions for helping workers negatively impacted by Phoenix, and blamed the backlog of cases on recently signed collective agreements. On August 30, while in Moncton, New Brunswick, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praised public service unions for helping workers affected by Phoenix's problems. He was in the province, in part, to visit the Phoenix call centre in Miramichi. This came days after the government blamed delays on the need to change pay rates as a result of new contracts.

The problems with Phoenix have impacted workers across departments, from summer students to managers. rabble.ca has spoken with several union representatives and current and former federal employees throughout the past few weeks. They said some workers have left the public service because of the pay concerns, and reported difficulties with recruiting new workers. Yet they also said many employees continue to go to work because they know their jobs are too important.

Whether the federal government is as dedicated to fixing the problem as its employees are to working during the problem remains to be seen.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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