News / Canada

'Unacceptable': Outstanding transactions at Phoenix pay centre surpass 500,000, says minister

The number includes 265,000 cases where government workers have been underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all.

Carla Qualtrough, the minister responsible for the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system, says a backlog of outstanding transactions being dealt with by the federal pay centre has spiked to 520,000.

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

Carla Qualtrough, the minister responsible for the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system, says a backlog of outstanding transactions being dealt with by the federal pay centre has spiked to 520,000.

OTTAWA — The backlog of outstanding pay problems faced by federal civil servants has now reached a staggering 520,000, the minister responsible for the problem-plagued Phoenix pay system has revealed in a letter of apology to government employees.

That number is expected to grow further, Public Services and Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough said in the letter being circulated to federal civil servants over the next couple of days, which was provided to The Canadian Press.

"I am truly sorry that more than half of public servants continue to experience some form of pay issue," the minister's letter states. "Too many of you have been waiting too long for your pay."

"Your stories of hardship caused by the backlog of financial transactions keep me awake at night."

The outstanding transactions include non-financial requests from employees, such as changes to banking or home address information.

But it also includes 265,000 cases in which government workers have been underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all and have waited beyond what the government considers an acceptable period of time for their issues to be resolved.

In the letter, Qualtrough repeated what she and her predecessor in the portfolio have been saying for months — that the situation is "unacceptable."

And she emphasized that anyone working in government who is experiencing financial hardship as a result of pay problems can request an emergency salary advance.

One major factor that has prevented the government from reducing the pay issue backlog was the recent need to retroactively adjust the paycheques of government workers after new collective agreements were ratified.

So far, roughly 184,000 government employees have seen their paycheques adjusted to the new contracts, the minister said.

But another 20,000 collective agreement payments have yet to be processed and the number is expected to grow in coming weeks as more renewed contracts come into force.

Qualtrough said dealing with the pay system backlog will continue to be a slow process as the government seeks a "permanent solution" to the Phoenix debacle.

But her letter made no mention of a call this week by one of the country's biggest civil service unions to build an in-house pay system and to scrap the Phoenix system altogether.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada said earlier this week that IT professionals already working within government can build and thoroughly test a new pay system within a year.

The government has so far earmarked $400 million to fix the system and to deal with the existing pay backlog, partly by hiring more pay administrators at centres in Quebec and New Brunswick. But Qualtrough said in an interview aired last weekend that she could not guarantee the amount wouldn't reach $1 billion.

The government hasn't hired nearly enough people, quickly enough, to deal with the massive backlog of pay cases, the Public Service Alliance of Canada said Thursday.

"The government needs to step up its hiring process and expand the compensation capacity both in the pay centres and in departments," said PSAC national president Robyn Benson.

Initiated by the previous Conservative government in 2009, the Phoenix system was meant to streamline the payroll of public servants across dozens of departments and agencies, and save more than $70 million annually.

In a joint statement issued Thursday, Qualtrough and Treasury Board President Scott Brison again accused the Conservatives of saddling the government with a "botched" system.

"They rushed the design and implementation, did not train staff, all while firing 700 experienced pay advisers who were needed to make sure public servants were paid on time," said the statement.

The Conservatives have denied responsibility for the debacle, saying it was the Liberals, elected in 2015, who ultimately failed to heed warnings from civil service unions that the system wasn't ready before fully launching it in April 2016.

A report from an auditor general's review of the Phoenix pay system problems is expected to be made public next week.

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