Problems continue to plague public service pay system

Despite assurances last week from Public Services and Procurement Canada that it has largely worked out all the bugs in its new automated payroll system, one of the unions representing public servants say many of its members still aren't getting paid.

Woman being paid out of Health Canada petty cash as government rolls out problematic new payroll system

A worker with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans tosses a sockeye salmon back into the water northeast of Vancouver, B.C. DFO workers and many other federal public servants across the country have had their pay delayed because of technical problems with new processing software. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

One of the unions representing public servants say many of its members still aren't getting paid despite assurances from the government that it had worked out all the bugs in its new automated payroll system.

"I hear stories every day ... We're getting literally hundreds of complaints," Chris Aylward, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), said of the new payroll system, called Phoenix.

Amber McCoy, who works for the government of Canada, is one of them.

"I'm sitting here waiting. I mean, I'm very lucky that my department is issuing me emergency cheques out of Health Canada's petty cash," said McCoy.

The last time McCoy received a paycheque was at the end of February for a pay period in January. She is among thousands of public servants who've been trying to get answers by calling a toll-free help line. 

"I phoned on March 10 but couldn't get through again until April 1," said McCoy.

Last week, Aylward told CBC News that people working those phone lines are getting up to 7,000 calls a day when they're only staffed to handle around 2,200 callers.

I hear stories every day ... We're getting literally hundreds of complaints.- Chris Aylward, vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada

James Stensrud managed to get through Tuesday after weeks of bureaucratic back and forth. He's on parental leave from the Canadian Coast Guard and hasn't received a dime of top-up pay from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans since he went on leave in mid-February. Stensrud said he's receiving EI but that it's not enough to make ends meet.

"I last spoke with the pay centre a couple hours ago and the rep told me he was escalating my case to a team leader and that it looked like I wouldn't be paid next week either because of the massive backlog. I've already had to borrow money from family to cover expenses and it looks like I'll have to borrow more next week," Stensrud said Tuesday afternoon.

Last week Public Services and Procurement Canada, the department responsible for Phoenix, downplayed the problems.

"All employees who should have received a pay (i.e., whose information was entered into the system), have been paid," said a spokesperson for the department in charge of rolling out the Phoenix system.

But Stensrud said that is simply not true. 

Aylward said most of the employees who aren't getting paid properly — or if at all — are those who don't work a typical 9 to 5, Monday to Friday schedule, or are coming off or going on a leave from work. 

McCoy, who works three days a week after she and her son were hit by a vehicle as pedestrians, falls into that category.

"I feel I am experiencing more problems than a number of my other colleagues because I don't fall within that standard algorithm. My working schedule is quite different from my co-workers," said McCoy before adding, "We're lucky in a lot of ways, we're looking into loans to make sure we're not damaging ourselves financially but I shouldn't have to do that; I work for the government."

Government pledges to hire more people

On Tuesday morning, in response to more questions from CBC News, the PSPC, under Minister of Public Services Judy Foote, said it is in the process of hiring 50 more people to work the phones at the pay centre to help resolve people's problems. It said it has also brought in 20 "Phoenix system experts" to provide assistance on site during the transition period.

"Our priority is ensuring that employees are paid as promptly as possible. Anyone experiencing an issue with their pay should contact the pay centre. Reported problems will be dealt with as quickly as possible," a PSPC spokesperson said in an email.

Minister of Public Services Judy Foote answers a question during question period in the House of Commons. Her department is responsible for administering the public service's payroll system, Phoenix, which has garnered its share of complaints from public servants. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Yet McCoy first complained about her pay issues on March 10 and still hasn't received the money.

Neither has Colin Barnard, who works at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Pinkut Creek spawning channel in northern British Columbia. Barnard spoke to CBC News last week and said the financial stress is "wearing me down".

Aylward welcomes the addition of more staff to help answer the help line, but said it's the Phoenix program that has to change.

He pointed to how it is unacceptable that members of the Canadian Coast Guard, who do a lot of shift work and are out at sea for weeks at a time, are among the hardest hit by the transition to Phoenix.

Without the means to check their bank accounts to monitor whether their pay is being deposited while they're at sea, Aylward said some employees returned home to find some of their utilities cut off because there were insufficient funds to cover automated bill payments.

The union vice-president says the government had better cover any re-connection fees incurred by those workers.

With files from Julia Sisler