Federal employees protest the Phoenix pay system outside the Agassiz Research and Development Centre in February 2018. (Nina Grossman/The Observer)

Confidence in the pay system a ‘pipe dream,’ federal employees say

The three year anniversary of the Phoenix pay system is leaving some employees with little hope

On Feb. 28, it will have been three years since the federal government brought the Phoenix pay system online with hopes of creating an efficient and economical payroll program.

For Anthony Friesen, Feb. 28 marks another year of losing confidence in that pay system, and another year with little hope for the future.

“You just feel hopeless,” he said.

“When are we going to put this behind us and just worry about doing our work?” he added, then paused. “That’s enough of a challenge as it is most days.”

Friesen is a technician at the Agassiz Research and Development Centre and union representative for the PSAC Agriculture Union Local 20038, which covers labourers, technicians and office workers at the centre. He’s been experiencing pay problems for the last three years, as have more than half of the federal government’s nearly 300,000 employees.

RELATED: Federal workers rally for immediate action on Phoenix pay system

“There’s just a lack of confidence that if you do something out of the ordinary, that the pay system is going to handle it properly,” he said, explaining what he saw as the current mood in the research centre towards the pay system.

He said employees are second-guessing whether to take on acting positions or opportunities for promotions.

“Normally, it would be an opportunity to get paid a little more and get some experience,” he said. “All those things are inherently risky now, because you don’t know what will happen to your pay as a result of those changes.”

“Some things have gotten better in that way,” he added. “But there’s no confidence yet in the system.”

RELATED: Auditor general says unleashed bureaucrats bungled Phoenix, costing millions

The Phoenix pay system was first initiated by the Harper government in 2009. Designed by IBM for a $309-million contract, its goal was to create a more efficient and economical program to replace the more than dozens of different pay systems in the federal government.

On Feb. 28, 2016 the Phoenix pay system was brought online.

It did not go well.

According to the Public Services and Procurement Canada website, more than half of all public servants are experiencing some form of pay issue. This holds true for Friesen’s experience too — he estimates that more than half of the people working at the Agassiz Research Station have experienced pay problems.

“Some people aren’t affected to a great degree,” Friesen said. “But nobody has any trust in the pay system.”

Some of the problems have hit large groups of people, like the collective agreement over-payment that impacted technicians like Friesen. The over-payment began in the summer of 2017; it was only recovered by the federal government at the beginning of this year.

RELATED: Feds considering ‘tiered’ compensation for Phoenix damages, no price tag yet: source

Other problems are smaller, and in some ways, more difficult to manage. One employee at the Agassiz Research and Development Centre was transferred from another department before the Phoenix pay system came online. That employee’s pay rate wasn’t properly transferred, and when Phoenix came on board, the problems piled up.

These issues reach to every department in the federal government: the research centre is lucky because most employees have relatively simple pay schedules. Places like Kent and Mountain Institutions have more complicated issues.

“We have a lot more pay issues in corrections because of our collective agreements,” Kirsty Havard, regional vice-president for the Union of Safety and Justice Employees, explained.

In corrections facilities, employees often have different allowances that make up their pay, including an inmate training differential, a supervisory allowance and a correctional service specific duty allowance.

“You have all these different things, and then you have shift workers and … variable hour workers,” Havard said.

“The Phoenix pay system just can’t keep up with it.”

Since 2016, the federal government has spent around $645 million to respond to pay issues caused by Phoenix, including $16 million to work on a new pay system to replace it.

RELATED: Potential replacements for Phoenix pay system to start testing soon: Brison

The Agassiz Harrison Observer reached out to Minister of Public Services and Procurement and Accessibility Carla Qualtrough for an interview about next steps for Phoenix. She was not available for an interview, and instead sent a statement via email.

“Canada’s public servants deserve to be paid accurately and on time for their important work,” Qualtrough’s statement reads. “Stabilizing the Phoenix pay system remains my top priority and our government is making progress.”

She went on to say that the federal government has increased capacity by 1,500 at the Miramichi pay centre and regional offices, and provided $1.5 billion in retroactive payments for employees.

“We will continue our efforts to stabilize the pay system until all public servants are paid accurately and on time,” the statement continued.

Right now, the Treasury Board Secretariat is looking at options for a new pay system. Several options for pay systems are being considered, and some employees got a chance to provide input for the proposed systems.

The Department of Public Services and Procurement Canada continues to work on stabilizing the pay process under Phoenix. The department instituted a new “pay pod” system to help deal with the backlog of pay issues caused by Phoenix in December 2017.

According to the department’s website, the initial results have been positive, with a 30 per cent decrease in the backlog of pay issues for the agencies under the pay pod system. In June 2018, the program was expanded to 13 departments in the federal government.

RELATED: Union calls on prime minister to step into ‘stalled’ Phoenix compensation talks

But that hasn’t fixed the immense workload caused by the Phoenix problems. On Jan. 23, the pay centre was still dealing with 275,000 financial transactions that were beyond the normal 80,000 workload, although this was down from 283,000 in December 2018.

“It’s huge. I think that says it all right there,” Havard said about the backlog of transactions. “Are they getting a handle on it? Not really.”

As the union vice-president for correctional facilities across the Fraser Valley, Havard says she deals with at least one pay grievance a week. The number has been getting lower, she added, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

“Overall it has come down slightly, but very slightly, in terms of grievances,” she said. “But I think this would have a lot to do with people are giving up.”

“A lot of people I think aren’t reporting everything, all their actual pay issues,” she continued. “They’ve just kind of given up.”

Friesen agreed.

“To return to a place where you actually have confidence in the pay system feels like a pipe dream right now,” he said. “It would be nice if that could be reality.”



grace.kennedy@ahobserver.com

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