Liberals agree to emergency meeting Thursday over Phoenix payroll mess

MPs will get the opportunity Thursday to grill senior government officials about the disastrous rollout of the Phoenix payroll system that has left 80,000 federal public servants in Canada with pay problems.

Opposition says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shirked responsibility by blaming previous government

Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote has called the Phoenix pay problems unacceptable. Now the Liberals have agreed to an opposition call for an emergency committee meeting to study the issue. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

MPs will get a chance Thursday to grill senior government officials about the disastrous rollout of the Phoenix payroll system that has left 80,000 federal public servants in Canada with pay problems, after Liberal members of the government operations committee green-lighted further study of the beleaguered program.

Opposition parties demanded the meeting Monday after hearing from thousands of constituents with pay problems, "while Minister [Judy] Foote and her Liberal colleagues continue to display a lack of concern for the issue."

"While the Liberals continue to dodge this serious issue, both opposition parties will work together to find a solution to this problem," Conservative procurement critic Steven Blaney said in a statement.

Four Liberal members came forward late Monday to endorse the opposition motion, paving the way for department officials, federal employees and union representatives to be hauled in front of their committee to get at the source of the problem.

"While we understand that the government is working hard to address the issues with the system, we feel that it is important for committee members to get a fuller understanding of the situation," MPs Yasmin Ratansi, David Graham, Raj Grewal and Nick Whalen said in a letter to committee clerk Leif-Erik Aune.

With the Liberal backing, the committee clerk announced the meeting will be held Thursday on Parliament Hill at 2 p.m. ET.

An emergency meeting can only be called if four members put their request in writing to the clerk, which would then force a session within five days. There are only three opposition members on this committee, meaning at least one Liberal MP had to back the call for action.

Conservatives spearheaded new pay system

Ratansi, the Liberal vice-chair of the committee, told CBC News that she's "not amused with anybody playing politics with the lives of ordinary Canadians." She said the opposition parties are simply "grandstanding" and that bringing MPs back to Ottawa would be a waste of taxpayers' money when the deputy minister has been providing daily briefings on efforts to fix the payroll system.

Despite her criticism, Ratansi said she is signing off on an emergency meeting to call the opposition's bluff.

"I think it is important that we put it to rest, this is not a political game. I want a solution, I don't want people to suffer."

She said an examination of Phoenix will reveal it is the Conservatives who rubber stamped a "buggy" system in 2015 after internal warnings.

Liberal vice-chair of the government operations and estimates committee, Yasmin Ratansi, sent a letter to the clerk in support of an emergency meeting to study the Phoenix payroll system. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

"Obviously, it's an extremely serious issue. Public servants should never be going weeks or perhaps months without pay ... it's unconscionable. everyone agrees on that," Tom Lukiwski, the Conservative chair of the government operations committee, told CBC News. "Ultimately, [Phoenix] will be the best way forward. There's just so many kinks."

He said questions need to be answered by Foote, the minister of public services and procurement, but he said he wasn't sure whether reconvening his committee at this time is the best forum.

In an interview with CBC News, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also blamed the former Harper government for problems with Phoenix. Treasury Board President Scott Brison has also said that the Conservatives allowed the system to deteriorate.

Phoenix was initiated by Stephen Harper's Conservatives and was rolled out in phases under Trudeau's watch earlier this year amid warnings from the largest union representing federal public servants that there would be problems.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada said thousands of its members experienced problems during the first phase of the rollout, which began in late February, and in April the union urged the Liberals not to move ahead with the next phase.

The government said at the time that only 300 employees had made formal complaints about the system and that "almost all" of the technical issues had been resolved.

Trudeau must take responsibility: NDP

The Harper government centralized pay centre operations in Miramichi, N.B., after it shut down the long-gun registry, a move that would have left thousands of public servants in that city without work.

It also cut the number of compensation advisers dramatically from about 2,700 serving 300,000 employees to 442 now working in Miramichi, with the hope that Phoenix would streamline the number of employees needed to complete this work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the government is, for the moment, focused on restoring proper pay, not holding people to account. 1:11

"The Conservatives were wrong to imagine that the federal government could effectively replace its payroll systems with off-the-shelf software from IBM operated by a single pay centre, relocated to Miramichi for political reasons," NDP procurement critic Erin Weir said Monday. "The Liberals were wrong to implement Phoenix this year even after employees at Miramichi warned that the system was not ready."

The NDP said the prime minister has shirked responsibility by shifting the blame to the previous government. "After dismissing concerns raised about Phoenix from federal employees, their unions and the NDP for months, the prime minister must now take responsibility for the decisions his government made," Weir said.

The previous Conservative government centralized pay operations in Miramichi, N.B., after it shut down the long-gun registry. (CBC)

Marie Lemay, deputy minister for public services and procurement, told reporters last week that the government grossly underestimated the time and training needed to move to the new system and clear out old cases, outstripping the capacity to respond.

The government will now hire temporary compensation adviser specialists and make technical enhancements to the system.

About 720 public servants — largely new hires and students — have contacted the government about not receiving pay.

Another 1,100 have not received parental, long-term disability or severance payments, while more than 80,000 employees entitled to supplementary pay for extra duties, overtime or pay adjustments have had problems.

The Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Judy Foote, addresses the growing list of problems with the government's Phoenix pay system. 10:58

Phoenix falling

CBC News has been collecting stories from civil servants, part-time employees and student workers who have been hit by the Phoenix payroll system problems. Here are some of their stories:

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With files from CBC's Katie Simpson

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