The federal government has, since August 2017, offered incentives to workers trying to deal with a mountain of problems created by Phoenix pay system. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Pay worker retention deal expires, renewing concerns about Phoenix backlog

OTTAWA — The lapse of an agreement that gave retention bonuses to federal pay centre employees could halt — or even reverse — progress that’s been made in reducing a massive backlog of pay problems generated by the government’s troubled Phoenix pay system, employees warn.

“People are tired, they’re frustrated, they’re burning out,” says Donna Whalen, a compensation adviser at the government’s main pay centre in Miramichi, N.B.

“They’re just taking the rug out from under us as far as providing that incentive, providing that reason to go and do that extra mile every day.”

The federal government has, since August 2017, offered incentives to workers trying to deal with a mountain of problems created by Phoenix, which have included underpayments, overpayments and sometimes no pay at all for thousands of civil servants.

But a memorandum that allowed for the incentives, which included cash to recruit and retain pay specialists as well as increased overtime premiums, expired in June with no indications that it would be renewed.

That is raising questions about commitments the Trudeau government made to eradicate a massive backlog of improper pay files.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents the vast majority of federal government employees, said it repeatedly requested an extension of the deal but that no action was taken.

“It’s outrageous that the government has allowed this agreement to expire mere weeks after the Parliamentary Budget Officer stated that public-service workers will be stuck with Phoenix until at least 2023,” said PSAC national president Chris Aylward.

The previous Conservative government laid off hundreds of compensation advisers in an effort to save taxpayers money once the Phoenix pay system was launched.

But flaws in the Phoenix system quickly created pay problems for tens of thousands of workers who were overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all, forcing the Trudeau government to scramble to re-hire pay specialists who could deal with a growing stack of pay complaints.

Those pay-centre employees have been slowly reducing the pay-problem backlog since early this year. But without incentives to keep them on the job, PSAC says it’s concerned the backlog will grow again.

The incentives included a payment of $4,000 to compensation advisers — the pay-centre employees tasked to stabilize Phoenix — as well as double-time compensation for overtime.

“A lot of times a number of people will stay the extra hour or the extra half hour,” said Whalen. “The average person (at the pay centre) is working extra time, almost daily, to complete that one case or that one transaction.”

Other pay-centre employees who spoke with The Canadian Press, but who didn’t want to be identified over concerns for their jobs, said they expect some pay advisers will start working Sundays, which under their contracts will still pay double overtime, but not work extra hours during the week.

The backlog of transactions under Phoenix has slowly declined since the beginning of 2019 and stood at 245,000 as of April 17, the latest figures available through the government’s public service pay centre dashboard.

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