Federal payroll workers are falling back on Excel spreadsheets, Google and, in some cases, pen and paper to make up for the litany of problems with the Phoenix pay system which, several staffers say, is weakening the integrity of the entire compensation system. 

Workers from offices in Winnipeg, Edmonton and the central pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity, said they're often forced to come up with creative solutions to the pay system's glitches. 

"They do what they have to do," said Donna Lackie, former national president of the union representing the pay workers, who recently visited the centre in Miramichi.

"If one is able to discover a tool for a certain pay function, they share that with each other."

Some were even using Google to try to find answers to their Phoenix questions in the pay system's early days, she said. Since its debut 18 months ago, tens of thousands of public servants across Canada have been improperly paid.

One staffer, who has worked in the federal pay system for more than 25 years, told CBC she questions all the transactions coming out of Phoenix.

"We are nowhere near as comfortable with the integrity of the information and the integrity of the amount of pay and everything," the staffer said.

"Phoenix is very unreliable. It's almost volatile. Whatever we put in, I'm never 100 per cent sure that is what the outcome is going to be." 

Donna Lackie

Former union head Donna Lackie recently visited the pay centre in Miramichi. (CBC)

Incomplete and shredded

Back in 2012, four years before the Phoenix switch was flipped, hundreds of staffers in Miramichi started working on the transition to the new pay system. The government had already decided to lay off 1,000 workers in other locations across the country and to centralize the pay centre operations in New Brunswick.

Workers tell CBC News the Miramichi centre received truckloads of paper pay files from all parts of Canada, which were to be entered into the new, developing system. 

But they said the boxes of paper were coming from people who were losing their jobs. Some files were incomplete. They also found out that other files had been shredded. 

"It's unbelievable the amount of forensics we had to do," one staffer said.

"The government put these people in a difficult position. They were being let go, their loyalties were gone." 

Carla Qualtrough

Carla Qualtrough, minister of public services and procurement, says a recent report on Phoenix shows the payroll system was 'set up to fail.' (CBC)

50,000 backlogged cases

By the time the Phoenix system started to roll out in February 2016, workers say they already had 50,000 cases of improper payment in the backlog. 

They said the day Phoenix started, none of the staff — not even the trainers — had seen the new technology in operation, so no one knew exactly what to do. They soon realized the technology wasn't programmed to do what it was supposed to.

This was formally acknowledged by government ministers with the tabling of a report last week.

"[Phoenix] was set up to fail," said Carla Qualtrough, minister of public services and procurement.

federal pay stub, Phoenix

Federal workers in New Brunswick point to a pay stub riddled with errors thanks to the Phoenix pay system. (CBC)

80 collective agreements, 80,000 rules

Qualtrough said the Phoenix architects underestimated the extreme complexity of the federal government's pay system, and that proper oversight and accountability were not in place from the start.

The system needs to carry out some 8.9 million annual transactions valued at $17 billion, with more than 80 collective agreements and 80,000 business rules, according to the report.

Phoenix is not able to handle all those transactions. So payroll workers must complete many manual steps and work outside the program to get people paid.

"Our current human resources, pay and finance processes do not align with Phoenix, resulting in many time consuming, manual calculations and delays from employees waiting for their pay," Qualtrough said. 

Workers protest outside pay centre, Miramichi

Unionized federal workers protest against the Phoenix pay system outside the pay centre Miramichi. (CBC)

'That's not automation'

Staffers say they often rely on Excel spreadsheets to figure out transactions before inputting the numbers into Phoenix.

"We actually have to complete an Excel document and upload it into Phoenix so it can create a payment. That's not automation," one worker told CBC.

'The unions aren't getting their union dues, or they're getting too much.' — Federal payroll worker

"We write everything down. We're printing so we have our backup."

Another payroll worker, who works in Edmonton, told CBC she's not confident that the transactions they're putting in are always accurate.

"It's not only the pay that's now affected, it's their deductions. I don't think pension contributions are taken accurately," she said.

"The unions aren't getting their union dues, or they're getting too much, or they're having it refunded to the employee. Our insurance, dental, health care, how are they getting the employers share of the premiums?"

workers leaving pay centre

Workers leave the the pay centre in Miramichi. (CBC)

November deadline

The government has said the system will be fixed, but it will take time. There continues to be a massive backlog. In September 160,000 government workers were improperly paid, according to an internal government document, and according to Qualtrough another current complication is the integration of about 25 new collective agreements into the system.

"Frankly, the number of transactions in the backlog is going to go up before it goes down," she said. 

Integrating the collective agreements is a top priority, because if that work is not complete by mid-November, the government will be breaking the law.

Qualtrough said 356 new payroll staffers have recently been hired and the government hopes to hire many more to help those who've been slogging it out for years already.

"Our workload has exploded, we're barely keeping our head above water. We've tripled our workload," said one.