Phoenix public service pay problems could last until October

The government has hired temp-agency workers, without security clearance, to staff a call centre handling inquiries from the 80,000 public servants who are having issues with their pay after the introduction of the bungled Phoenix payroll system, CBC News has learned.

Ottawa hires temps without security clearance to staff overworked Phoenix call centres

Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote speaks to the media in Miramichi, N.B. The government has hired temp agency workers, without security clearance, to staff a call centre to help field questions from public servants facing pay problems. (Ron Ward/Canadian Press)

Temp-agency workers hired by the federal government to help staff a Phoenix call centre handling inquiries from the 80,000 public servants having issues with their pay have no security clearance, and are telling callers that it could take until October to resolve issues, CBC News has learned.

Managers decided last Thursday to recruit workers from a temp agency to staff the Toronto call centre, which has been inundated with queries from panicked public servants, some of whom have placed literally hundreds of calls to the pay centre before reaching an agent.

The temps started working Monday and were given scripts to help them field questions. 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. Senior bureaucrats previously said it could take "months" to sort through the backlog of problems, but had not been specific about which month.

Some employees have already gone months without a paycheque, prompting at least one to quit her government job as the bills piled up.

'Big waste of time'

The temps at the call centre do not necessarily have any background working in compensation, and training has been largely non-existent, sources told CBC News.

The Phoenix pay system has already prompted security concerns after it was revealed there have been two breaches of public servants' private data, including names, pay amounts and "Personal Record Identifiers."

"Without having any checks in place, the government is putting literally people off the street, without any security checks, or training, to pick up phone calls and take in employee pay concerns," said a source with knowledge of the call centre setup. Security clearance is expected to be applied "retroactively" to these workers.

CBC News has agreed to protect the identity of sources for fear of retribution from management.

There is concern that these new temps are simply placating public servants and doing little to actually resolve ongoing compensation issues.

"The thing is that when they take in these concerns, they don't even have the ability to submit a case number. All this call centre will do is make sure when employees call that they reach someone only to have that person tell them that there is nothing they can do," a source said. "A colleague called ... she was insistent on speaking to a comp adviser. The agent said there is none there and no one has access to anything. She felt it was big waste of time."

A spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada confirmed late Thursday that it has created a "triage call centre," and that phone line capacity is being increased to ensure employees calling to report an issue with their pay can actually get through and speak to someone.

"Contracted staff there assist clients by filling out, on their behalf, [an] externally available Web form, and assigning a priority level, based on a script provided to them. They do not have access to the Phoenix system or employee pay information," Pierre-Alain Bujold said.

Judy Foote, the minister responsible for Phoenix, said Wednesday that the government has hired 50 new "casual employees" and summer students in Miramichi, N.B. — and is currently scouting out other locations for "regional hubs" — to help compensation advisers sort through the mounting caseload.

"We don't want the people in Miramichi having to deal with a backlog of issues, we want them to deal with the jobs they were hired to do and to relieve any stress that they may feel as a result of having to deal with issues that really weren't part of the job they took," she said.

Twenty-eight of the Miramichi's 600 pay centre staff are currently on sick leave, with some attributing it to the pressure of dealing with the faulty system.

Phoenix falling

Marie Lemay, deputy minister for Public Services and Procurement, told reporters last week that 720 federal employees — mostly new hires and students — had contacted the government about not being paid since the Phoenix pay system was implemented earlier this year, and that 486 of them would get a lump sum of back pay this week. Foote confirmed Thursday that that pool of public servants has now been paid.

Another 1,100 workers 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.

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.

MPs on the government operations and estimates committee will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to study Phoenix's disastrous rollout. Department officials, federal employees and union representatives will be hauled in front of the committee to get at the source of the problem.

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Phoenix pay glitches unacceptable

6 years ago
Duration 2:25
Deputy Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Marie Lemay, says the glitches in the pay system are unacceptable, and blames the problems on a lack of training to get workers comfortable with the new pay system.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.