Phoenix built to fail, HR report finds

The government's problematic Phoenix payroll software was "deliberately customized" to perform a number of tasks that have led to a cascade of pay errors, according to a document obtained by CBC.

Public service pay system 'deliberately customized' to commit errors, according to document obtained by CBC

Public servants protest problems with the Phoenix pay system in Ottawa in October 2017. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The government's problematic Phoenix payroll software was "deliberately customized" to perform a number of tasks that have led to a cascade of pay errors, according to a document obtained by CBC.

The June 2017 report, titled "Issues with Phoenix as identified by the HR community," was produced by the office of the government's chief human resources officer and obtained through access to information legislation.

The document identifies a series of ongoing issues between the government's pay and human resources systems that have frustrated managers and workers alike for nearly two years.

When it comes to new hires, "Phoenix was 'deliberately customized'... to default to the lowest rate of pay within their classification, rather than to the amount quoted in their letter of offer," the report found.

That went for "any new casual or term employee, any new indeterminate employee, students and employees transferred to a new department or agency."

Those workers are paid improperly until a compensation adviser manually changes the pay rate, a process that can "take a significant period of time, especially at the Pay Centre," according to the report.

Half of workforce affected

At the end of November, the government reported the total number of outstanding financial and non-financial Phoenix claims had reached 551,000, affecting approximately 156,000 government workers, or more than half of the workforce.

The union representing a majority of federal employees calls the revelations in the document concerning.

"Phoenix was deliberately set up to make sure people were paid at the lowest amount," said Chris Aylward, national executive vice president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. "So they deliberately set up the system ... to have issues."

The report, called "Issues with Phoenix as identified by the HR community," was produced by the office of the federal government's chief human resources officer in June 2017. (ATIP)

No fix yet

According to the report, Phoenix was customized to:

  • Recover overpayments from workers before notifying or making arrangements with the employee first, leaving some employees with "limited to no funds."
  • Freeze an employee's account when he or she leaves a department or the government.
  • Calculate overpayments which are in some cases "recovered multiple times from the same employee."

The report also raises concerns about missing, incomplete and incorrect data caused by Phoenix, noting that "government-wide reporting is impacted by this inaccurate data."

"And that's the most frustrating part for the workers [at the federal government pay centre] in Miramichi, is when they try to fix one portion of this, something else goes wrong and it's almost like a domino effect," Aylward said.

Chris Aylward, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

Hiring in 2018

The department in charge of Phoenix, Public Services and Procurement Canada, told CBC progress is being made when it comes to improving the pay system.

"We are hiring 300 additional compensation advisors in early 2018 in order to continue to increase capacity at the Pay Centre," the department told CBC. "The objective is to create modernized, efficient processes that will decrease manual treatment, processing times, underpayments, overpayments and wait times for employees."

But it's all too little, too late for the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"We will certainly be seeking compensation for the damages and we're not going to stop there. We need to continue our escalation of our actions," Aylward said.


Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is a senior reporter who works on investigations and enterprise news features at CBC Ottawa. She's also the host of the CBC investigative podcast, The Band Played On found at: You can reach her at