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Federal officials turn attention to root causes with payroll problems

Deputy Minister of Public Works and Government Services Marie Lemay (right) and and associate assistant deputy minister Rosanna Di Paola speak to reporters during a technical briefing on the Phoenix pay system on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
August 11, 2016 - 11:31 AM

OTTAWA - The top public servant at the department overseeing the troubled Phoenix payroll system says officials are trying to get to the root causes of issues with the new system in order to restore the trust of tens of thousands of federal workers.

The government has been trying to deal with cases of workers who haven't been paid for months, including new workers and students, or those coming back from maternity leave or receiving a promotion who find their paycheques lighter than they should be.

Those kinds of cases continue to come in with 274 new reports of employees not receiving any pay. There were also 2,646 cases since mid-July of people coming or going on leave had problems with their paycheques, of which 1,182 were addressed.

Marie Lemay, the deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement, said after months of trying to resolve pay issues, officials are turning their attention to figuring out the root causes of the glitches that have affected more than 80,000 public servants.

Some of those who have been overpaid because of the system problems, or those who received emergency payroll advances, have found subsequent paycheques almost entirely clawed back to recoup to mistaken payments.

Lemay said the government is starting to spread out repayments out over the coming months to avoid a lump sum coming off any single cheque and allay workers' concerns that taking the advances will make their financial situation worse.

"If the employees don't have trust in the system, that's really bad," Lemay told reporters on Thursday. "I'm hoping that with all the effort that we're making and all the progress that we're making, they will feel better and more comfortable and feel that they can trust the system.

"I'm not saying that ... we've solved the issues. We still have a lot of work to do."

Wednesday was payday for federal workers and officials say 296,470 of them received their regular paycheques and thousands more payments were made for things such as overtime.

The Phoenix system oversees the pay of 300,000 federal public servants, but more than 80,000 workers have either been overpaid, underpaid or missed entire paycheques since program launched in February.

There have been reports of workers of workers being forced to borrow money or max out their credit cards to pay their bills while the government sorts out problems with the new pay system.

The federal government plans to cover out-of-pocket expenses workers have incurred as a result of problems linked to the troubled payroll system. Workers will have to apply through a claims process likely starting in September to have the government cover these expenses, but officials didn't estimate how much this will cost.

There had long been concerns from departments and unions about the switchover to Phoenix.

An independent, third-party review of the system in January gave the green light for the two-phase rollout, which saw a first wave of departments switched over in February and the remainder in April. The review team wrote that the benefits of moving ahead "outweigh the risks" and that the rollout "will be challenging, but it is likely that the problems and difficulties that will be encountered will be manageable."

That independent review also suggested that delaying the start of Phoenix could add months to project timelines, which would increase costs and spread thin payment staff trying to work with the old system while at the same time building the new one. Changing project timelines "is not a simple shift to the right," reads a February presentation.

The details are contained in January and February presentations to top officials in Public Services and Procurement Canada, copies of which were released under the Access to Information Act.

The timeline now to get to what officials describe as a "steady state," where the system is running smoothly and the pay centre in Miramichi, N.B., isn't backlogged with outstanding complaints, is unclear. Lemay said she expected that by the end of October officials will have a better idea of what a steady state will look like.

Extra pay specialists in Gatineau, Que., temporary offices in Winnipeg, Montreal and Sherbrooke, Que., and a temporary call centre in Toronto will all stay in place until officials are confident they have reached that steady state, Lemay said.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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