Ottawa·Phoenix Falling

Lack of training, not Phoenix, responsible for pay issues, tribunal hears

A senior official responsible for rolling out the federal government's Phoenix payroll system told a labour tribunal Wednesday the issues that led to pay problems for some 80,000 employees are are due to a lack of training, not the software itself.

Union accuses senior official of 'blaming everybody else, except the pay system itself'

Rosanna Di Paola, left, the associate assistant deputy minister responsible for Phoenix. To her right is Renée LaFontaine, CFO of the Treasury Board Secretariat. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

A senior official responsible for rolling out the federal government's Phoenix payroll system told a labour tribunal Wednesday the issues that led to pay problems for some 80,000 employees are due to a lack of training, not the software itself.

"As long as people enter [information] wrong, it will be wrong. It could be wrong ten years from now," testified Rosanna Di Paola, the associate assistant deputy minister responsible for the federal government's Phoenix pay system.

You may have heard 80,000 people are having pay problems. Those are not Phoenix-related issues.- Rosanna  Di  Paola , the associate assistant deputy minister for Public Services and Procurement Canada

"To do it over again, I would have made training absolutely mandatory," she said.

"We underestimated the time it took people to adapt to the new technology. The learning curve just seemed to be much longer than we expected."

Di Paola was testifying at the Public Service Labour Relations Employment Board tribunal hearing concerning the Public Service Alliance of Canada's complaint that the government broke the law by not paying public servants accurately or on time due to the Phoenix pay system fiasco.

Since the new Phoenix payroll system "went live" in February, more than 80,000 public servants have been underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all.

But Di Paola testified that the Phoenix technology isn't to blame.

"You may have heard 80,000 people are having pay problems. Those are not Phoenix-related issues," testified Di Paola. "What those 80,000 employees had are cases or pay requests for — acting [pay], overtime, increment requests — at the pay centre that we hadn't gotten to in a timely fashion." 
Rosanna Di Paola is the associate assistant deputy minister responsible for the federal government's Phoenix pay system (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Her department identified two root causes for the issues. 

"The information is not being entered into the departmental HR system in a timely way or correct way," said Di Paola. "The second root cause we found is the processing time in Miramichi has been slower than expected."

Di Paola says four satellite pay centres were opened to deal with the backlog of pay requests and ease up the workload at the Miramichi pay centre.

Payroll and HR now linked

Before Phoenix, if human resources staff didn't input data into the system in a timely or accurate matter, it didn't affect employees' pay. Di Paola says a separate department would duplicate that work and enter the information into its payroll system for workers to get their pay cheques.

The biggest change with Phoenix is that HR and payroll are now integrated. HR staff must input the data, it flows into Phoenix, and Phoenix pays it out, explained Di Paola. 

Di Paola testified that for the past three years she warned HR departments "just how critical their work had now become" and "would bring this point home" at monthly meetings with the HR council. 

"Once we're integrated what they do in HR is really crucial because it could mean that employees don't get paid or don't get paid correctly," Di Paola said she told HR staff.

Di Paola said she didn't have the authority to make training mandatory.

Each deputy head for the 101 departments that transitioned to Phoenix had to decide if the training was mandatory or not. Most opted it wasn't, she said. Compensation advisors were the only staff that had to carry-out instructor-lead training. 

The rest could access the Canada School of Public Service and take the web-based training. Di Paola said she also provided some departments with a CD with all the training modules so they could make them available on the department's own servers.

Public servants returning from disability leave had issues

As well, she pointed to a wiki for the government of Canada where they posted dozens of documents such as tips and trick on how to do things for managers, HR staff, and compensation advisors in Phoenix. 

Di Paola said that if she could "do it over again" she would have worked with the deputy minister and her deputy colleagues to make training mandatory for all users.

Di Paola also said people returning from disability leave had troubles getting the accurate pay because they weren't filling out their timecards properly. 

"[In] many cases there was a little education on part of the department to let them know about their gradual return to work. If they can only work a day, they need to put in their time or they don't get paid."

Prior to Phoenix employees would fill out paper timecards to get paid and a compensation advisor would key it into the system, she said. Phoenix moved the process online, but Di Paola said training is also online and available.

Testimony 'embarrassing' says union

It's embarrassing. We have the manager responsible for the implementation of a new pay system who is basically blaming everybody else, except the pay system itself.- Chris  Aylward , Public Service Alliance of Canada.

The union that launched the labour complaint was "embarrassed" by "Di Paola's testimony and called parts of it "deplorable."

"It's embarrassing," said Chris Aylward, the national vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"We have the manager responsible for the implementation of a new pay system who is basically blaming everybody else, except the pay system itself."

"80,000 people didn't input their information properly — I find that very hard to believe," he said. "And there is no problem with the pay system — I find that extremely hard to believe."

"She even went as far as to blame people coming back from disability," added Aylward."That's unconscionable. How can you blame the victims because they're not getting paid. That is totally unacceptable. She is failing to acknowledge any of the issues."

Claims process to compensate workers for out-of-pocket expenses

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat is launching a claims process sometime this week to reimburse public servants for out-of-pocket expenses incurred because of the Phoenix problems, the tribunal also heard Wednesday.

"A claimant can complete their claim by going to the web site, filling out the form...including receipts that should be attached to rationalize or explain the expenses they have occurred," said Renée Lafontaine, who is in charge of setting up the office.

"We have set up an operational claims officer in each department to guide them through and help them complete the claim." 
Renée LaFontaine testified at the hearing. She's the assistant secretary, corporate services and chief financial officer with the Treasury Board Secretariat. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

LaFontaine testified that the main priority is to make sure workers across the federal government are all treated equally and reimbursed in the same way, 

For most straight-forward claims under $500, workers will be paid out immediately by an operational claims officer in each department.

More complicated claims will be sent to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat's claims office and may take longer for reimbursement. 

Out-of-pocket expenses include interest that accumulated on credit cards, loans, or lines of credit because workers weren't getting paid properly, as well as any interest paid because employees had to withdraw investments.

LaFontaine said the government at this point will not be reimbursing people for items they can't prove with a receipt. For example, if a child couldn't attend summer camp, or a worker missed out on an investment opportunity because of the Phoenix pay problems.

Closing arguments will be delivered Thursday in front of the Public Service Labour Relations Employment Board. It could take the board three months or more to make its decision.