On the last pay day before Christmas, supporters and federal public service workers affected by the troubled Phoenix pay system rallied in Vancouver.

Workers say they want the government to fix the problems with the federal government's automated payroll system, which according to Canada's auditor general has left more than 150,000 public servants — nearly half of the federal workforce — underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all. 

Sky Belt is a single mother and works in administration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

She says she hasn't been paid any overtime or acting pay for the entire year, money she saves up for Christmas presents for her son. 

"I'm ending up having to borrow funds from other people in order to have a Christmas for my son," said Belt.

"Unfortunately, not all members are in that circumstance where they can borrow the money, and they're having to forgo Christmas altogether or presents, just because our payroll system is not working."

Phoenix pay system rally

Sky Belt (right) says she hasn’t been paid any overtime or acting pay for the entire year. (Cory Correia/CBC News)

Government addresses workers' concerns

Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough addressed some of the issues in an interview with CBC News. 

"This is really heartbreaking ... Rest assured this keeps me awake at night, and this is my number one priority," said Qualtrough. 

She says the government has hired about 290 new compensation advisors to help with payroll transactions and questions and has committed to hire another 300 that will start work by early January, increasing the total number of compensation advisors working on the pay system to 1,300 or 1,400. 

In regards to damages requested by workers to cover out of pocket expenses and financial consequences due to mispayments, Qualtrough says the Treasury Board is having discussions with various public service unions on that issue, but they haven't reached an agreement yet. 

Qualtrough says the government is working to establish better communication between compensation staff and various human resources staff to help workers navigate the complicated system. 

Phoenix pay system rally

Implemented in early 2016, the new pay system has generated 551,000 outstanding claims. (Cory Correia/CBC News)

For those workers who sought emergency payment assistance from the government to cover costs amid pay issues, Qualtrough says the government will work on repayment schedules for employees, so they don't have to pay back money all at once.

As for the issue of workers being overpaid and then asked to repay the government the pretax amount, Qualtrough says she had a meeting with the Canada Revenue Agency Thursday to see how they can resolve the problem. 

She says her hope is that the government will be in a position to not recover the gross overpayment until the taxed amount is returned to workers. ​

Qualtrough says the government is working with unions and holding IBM to account to get the system stabilized.

As of last month, Auditor General Michael Ferguson said the value of outstanding pay errors, including those who have been paid too little or too much, amounts to nearly half a billion dollars as of June 2017.  

The government says it will have a new plan in place with timelines by June 30, 2018.