New Brunswick

Pay-worker retention deal expires, renewing concerns about Phoenix backlog

The federal government has let an agreement expire that gave retention bonuses to workers trying to deal with a mountain of problems created by the Phoenix civil-service pay system — raising questions about commitments to eradicate a massive backlog of improper pay files.

Agreement had been in place since August 2017, but expired in June

Civil servants have been calling for a fix to the controversial Phoenix pay system since it was launched in 2016. (CBC)

The federal government has let an agreement expire that gave retention bonuses to workers trying to deal with a mountain of problems created by the Phoenix civil-service pay system — raising questions about commitments to eradicate a massive backlog of improper pay files. 

The agreement, which provided an incentive package to attract and retain compensation advisers to work at the government pay centre in New Brunswick, had been in place since August 2017 but expired in June. 

According to the Public Service Alliance of Canada, or PSAC, measures included an incentive payment of $4,000 and double-time compensation for overtime

The PSAC, which represents the vast majority of federal employees, said it repeatedly requested an extension of the deal but that no action was taken.

"It's outrageous that the government has allowed this agreement to expire mere weeks after the Parliamentary Budget Officer stated that public service workers will be stuck with Phoenix until at least 2023," said Chris Aylward, national president of the PSAC.

'A slap in the face'

Hundreds of compensation advisors were laid off by the previous Conservative government in an effort to save taxpayers money once the Phoenix pay system was launched.

Since the Phoenix system was launched in February 2016, flaws quickly created pay errors for tens of thousands of workers who were overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all, forcing the Trudeau government to scramble to re-hire pay specialists who could deal with a growing stack of complaints.

Those pay-centre employees have been slowly reducing the pay-problem backlog since it reached its peak early this year.

"The incentives make us feel appreciated and compensate us for all the extra hours we put in to help people struggling with Phoenix pay problems," said Donna Whalen, a compensation advisor at the Miramichi Pay Centre.

"It's stressful, emotionally draining work that requires frequent overtime, but we need to stay focused on resolving everyone's pay issues. This is a slap in the face to pay staff."

Without incentives to keep them on the job, PSAC says it's concerned the backlog will begin to grow again.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux has said whatever new pay system the federal government decides on will likely be cheaper on a per-employee basis than Phoenix and the pay system before it, which was called the Regional Pay System. (CBC)

"Trudeau says fixing the Phoenix crisis is a priority but these actions speak louder than words," Aylward said. 

Phoenix could cost $2.6B

Meanwhile, Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux, has said the final cost of the system could be as high as $2.6 billion.

The government has spent, or plans to spend, more than $1.5 billion so far, according to the latest federal budget.

Giroux said a new pay system should take $57 million to launch, which he estimated won't happen until 2023 at the earliest because Phoenix has to be stabilized first.

When working as intended, the automated self-serve payroll program is supposed to save the government $70 million per year. 

Takes accuracy 'very seriously'

A spokesperson for the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat said the federal government "takes its responsibility to pay employees accurately and promptly very seriously."

"We are taking action on as many fronts as possible to help stabilize the pay system, while at the same time continuing our work to advance the Next Generation pay solution," Martin Potvin wrote in an email. 

In addition to putting more resources into addressing pay problems, the government has offered "flexible repayment options" to employees who were paid too much, he said.

The government has also reached an agreement with unions to compensate employees affected by the Phoenix system, Poitvin said without elaboration. 

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