House Call with Carol Hughes

Phoenix pay system rises to haunt the government, again

In mythology, the Phoenix rises from the ashes of its predecessor and is repeatedly born again. In some ways it is a fitting namesake for Canada’s beleaguered federal pay system that continues to draw back into the news time and again for all the wrong reasons. It has become the government’s recurring headache and a solution is not in sight.

According to Auditor General Michael Ferguson, fixing the Phoenix Pay System is going to take longer than anticipated and also cost more than budgeted for. In his report to parliament last week, the federal watchdog found that successive governments have been unable to address the issue-plagued system that has affected thousands of employees. This is not good news and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) has already asked the government to look into an alternative to Phoenix.

Before it was rolled out, the government brushed aside calls from unions and public servants to delay the implementation of the system. Since then, more than half of public servants have experienced ongoing pay problems. Despite the promise of a fix by the end of October 2016, a full year later, the problem hasn’t been resolved. New Democrats are saying that since the government has yet to find a solution, they should demonstrate openness to PIPSC’s proposal for a plan B.

The Auditor General believes it will take years to fix the Phoenix payroll mess which has left thousands of employees overpaid, underpaid, or not paid at all. He said the government is underestimating the time and real cost of a long-term solution, which they have already set aside $540 million for. In his report, Mr. Ferguson also called on the Treasury Board of Canada and Public Services and Procurement Canada to track and publicly report on the plan.

As of this week, the number of public servants affected continues to grow, with 265,000 civil servants reported to have experienced pay problems. New Democrats are supporting calls made by PIPSC for the government to look into a plan B since Phoenix continues to be a costly problem for Canada and our public service employees. They believe the experience and expertise of public servants in charge of remuneration as well as unions should be at the centre of developing an alternative plan and worry the government could repeat the mistake of ignoring warnings from those at the centre of the storm.

There is also concern being expressed over the fact that the minister responsible for this file has not ruled out the possibility that the costs could surpass $1 billion and still has no deadline to fix it. No matter what, at this point there is no comfort in the realization that despite promises the system would save Canadian taxpayers $70 million a year, it could just as easily cost us $1 billion if we follow the same path that has yet to produce any results. It’s clear that more contracting out is not the remedy for Phoenix and that the focus needs to be on rebuilding a publicly-administered federal payroll system.