Hundreds of employees come forward with new Phoenix pay problems
Treasury Board considering compensation for public servants who have incurred costs as a result of non-payment
Senior bureaucrats revealed Thursday that hundreds more federal public servants have come forward to report they haven't been paid at all — the latest in the Phoenix payroll system controversy.
An additional 589 employees say they've gone months without a single paycheque, and an additional 1,026 people, with problems relating to long-term leave, sick leave and maternity leave, are still awaiting payment, deputy minister for public services and procurement Marie Lemay told reporters.
More than 80,000 public servants have some form of pay problem after the rollout of the troubled Phoenix system in February of this year. The figure could be even higher, as it is based on public servants self-reporting problems to their departments.
"I can't guarantee you today that we're aware of 100 per cent of the issues. While we're making progress, we're expecting that these cases will continue to emerge but in diminishing numbers over time," Lemay said. "I want to remind public servants that they need to keep reporting the pay problems as soon as possible so we can quickly respond."
Later, at an emergency meeting of the government operations and estimates committee, Lemay told MPs that the Treasury Board Secretariat is considering some sort of compensation for public servants who have racked up expenses — interest on their credit cards, or overdraft banking fees — as a result of not being paid for a prolonged period.
"Discussions are ongoing between Treasury Board and the unions. We're very seized with these issues … we're asking people to keep whatever piece of justification that they can, like keep track of what it is costing them," she said after a question from Liberal MP Raj Grewal.
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In an effort to deal with the mounting caseload, the government is also setting up temporary pay offices in Winnipeg, Montreal and Shawinigan, Que. Those offices will be open by mid-August.
There are now 57 compensation advisers working at a temporary unit in Gatineau, Que., that was created earlier this month to help sort through the backlog. A total of 115 advisers will be working in that office by the time it is fully staffed, although, the deputy minister said more staff could be added. These hastily assembled temporary pay centres are in addition to the primary pay office located in Miramichi, N.B., where all payroll operations were centralized in the Harper era in an effort to cut costs and pare back on compensation advisors.
Lemay also said she expects wait times to be driven down as a result of these new hires, especially for those people who have not been paid at all.
"There was a period when we were assessing the size of the issues and the backlog and everything. That was outstripping our capacity. We now have processes in place. If we have the information, they won't wait more than the next paycheque [to get paid]," Lemay said.
However, the largest union representing federal public servants, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, questioned that promise. "We wish we could trust this statement. The evidence so far says otherwise," PSAC said in a tweet.
All problems to be resolved by October: bureaucrats
As CBC News first reported, the government has also set up a call centre in Toronto, staffed by 100 temp-agency workers, to answer the phones from the thousands of workers calling in looking for answers. These temps, who do not have security clearance, and are largely charged with reading from a script, are in place to reassure bureaucrats and provide updates on their file. They will not be able to resolve pay problems, but will rather pass cases on to compensation advisers in Miramichi.
One of those scripts instructs them to tell public servants that if they informed the government of pay problems before June 1, there would be some sort of resolution by October.
"Yesterday the centre received 2,500 calls. None were dropped and the average wait times were under four minutes," Lemay said Thursday.
'I could care less'
The cost of all these new additional measures, including pay and call centres, has been tentatively pegged at $15 million to $20 million. Experts told the former Harper government that implementing the Phoenix system would save some $70 million a year in payroll costs.
"It's fair to say this year we won't achieve that," Lemay said, and the cost could be pushed even higher. "I can tell you that our minister [Judy Foote] has told us that she wants this fixed. We're not being held back as to resources to put this to bed."
Foote affirmed that position late Thursday in an interview with Rosemary Barton on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. "Clearly, we won't get the $70 million this year and I could care less. My focus is to get the system right, to make sure that people get paid. So I am not about savings, I am about fixing Phoenix and making sure that employees get paid."
Lemay told reporters last week that 720 federal employees — mostly new hires and students — had contacted the government about not being paid under the Phoenix pay system.
She confirmed Thursday that 486 of them received a lump sum of back pay this week. An additional 138 will be paid on Aug. 10.
Hundreds still await a cheque because there is a dearth of information of just how much pay they're entitled to, Lemay said.
Phoenix was initiated by Stephen Harper's Conservative government and was rolled out in phases under Trudeau's watch earlier this year amid warnings from PSAC, which said there would be problems with the new system.
Top bureaucrats responsible for Phoenix admitted Thursday that they ignored warnings from PSAC in April to halt the rollout of the second phase of the pay system. They also said they couldn't recall if they had briefed Foote on problems the union had flagged.
"The recommendation to the minister was clearly 'go ahead,'" Lemay conceded.
"I was told things were ready to go … people who have been working on this since 2009 assured me we didn't have to worry," Foote said.
It was also revealed Thursday that there has been an additional privacy breach of public servants' information.
Four federal employees had access to names, pay figures and identification numbers, despite not being authorized to view that information. The breach has been deemed "a very low risk."
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