Scrap disastrous Phoenix pay system, union head urges Trudeau government

OTTAWA — Give us a year, and we’ll build a working replacement for the trouble-plagued Phoenix pay system, one of the country’s biggest civil service unions told the Trudeau Liberals on Tuesday.

Tired of months of repeated promises that the system’s shortcomings would be fixed soon, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) wants the government to scrap the system and start over almost from scratch — a call the government isn’t dismissing out of hand.

“After nearly two years of problems with IBM’s Phoenix pay system, our members have lost confidence in the promise of fixing Phoenix,” union president Debi Daviau said Tuesday.

“Despite all efforts to fix Phoenix, the number of open cases of pay problems has grown to 330,000 as of October 2017 — with no end in sight,” said Daviau.

“Enough is enough.”

Her union represents about 50,000 federal employees.

Daviau said the government’s own IT professionals are more than capable of building a new system to end the pay crisis that has gripped federal employees since Phoenix was launched in April 2016.

It should take roughly a year to build and properly test a new system, based on Oracle’s PeopleSoft human resources management software, Daviau told a news conference, although she could not provide a cost estimate for the project.

“We already have the expertise and the people within the federal public service capable of designing and building it,” she said. “They just need the opportunity to do so.”

The call was supported by the opposition New Democrats and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, by far the largest civil service union with 180,000 government employees on its rolls.

“We welcome any system that would pay our members,” PSAC national president Robyn Benson said in a statement, adding that her union was prepared to work with PIPSC to ensure a new system could be administered smoothly.

“If Phoenix has taught us anything, we know that any system will require thorough consultations and testing,” said Benson.

A spokeswoman for the minister responsible for the pay system also appeared to leave the door open to a new approach, saying the government was prepared to work with the unions towards “finding a permanent solution” to the pay problems.

The department “continues to work with all partners including union leadership to find innovative and efficient solutions to the pay issues,” Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough’s press secretary Ashley Michnowski said in an emailed statement.

Michnowski added that the government was awaiting the findings of an auditor general’s report on the Phoenix debacle, which is to be made public next week.

Over the weekend, Qualtrough said she could not guarantee the ultimate cost of fixing the problems wouldn’t reach $1 billion.

When asked whether the cost to fix the public service pay system could reach that amount, the minister told CTV’s Question Period “I hope not,” but offered no assurances about the ultimate price tag.

Shortly after Phoenix went online, thousands of civil servants began reporting that they had been underpaid, overpaid or not paid at all — and in many cases, the problems extended over months.

The automated system, designed to streamline government’s antiquated pay system, was supposed to save Ottawa about $70 million a year.

Instead, the government has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to fix it, even as a backlog of problem cases grows larger.

During the summer, the Treasury Board of Canada issued a notice that it was planning to contract Oracle Canada — the company that produced the software at the core of the Phoenix system — to assess the system in hopes of stabilizing it.

The $2 million sole-source contract was for a period of six months, ending March 31, 2018.

The Senate has already set out to find a replacement system to pay its own employees.

But Daviau said she expected any private-sector solution the Senate comes up with either won’t work or can’t be expanded to handle the often complicated pay files of more than 300,000 civil servants spread over dozens of departments and agencies.

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