Meltdown of public service pay system blamed on ‘learning curve’

Public servants are being paid through a new electronic system built by IBM called Phoenix. Getty Images

The federal government says a backlog of files and a steep “learning curve” for new users are responsible for ongoing problems with the system used to pay public servants.

The Phoenix system, designed by IBM and rolled out in February, has been encountering issues since its launch, and they have been getting progressively worse over the past several months.

Some employees have been underpaid, some overpaid, and some have received no pay at all.

Health benefits have also been affected in some cases, and there have been reports of public servants defaulting on student loans and mortgage payments as a result of the bureaucratic meltdown.

“Ensuring that our staff are paid what they earn is our top priority,” Public Services and Procurement Deputy Minister Marie Lemay told reporters on Monday. “This situation is completely unacceptable.”

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Lemay said there are two main reasons for the problems experienced this spring and summer, the first being a backlog of 40,000 case files that were already in the system when Phoenix came online.

The second problem was that it took much longer for people to get familiar with the system than expected, she said.

“It is clear we underestimated the amount of time it would take for all users to become trained and familiar with the system.”

At least one public service union has called the Phoenix system a complete “boondoggle,” and 13 individual unions are taking Ottawa to federal court in an attempt to get money flowing again.

Most employees have been getting day-to-day pay, according to the federal government, and the majority of issues have involved supplementary pay and overtime.


Out of 300,000 employees in the system, approximately 80,000 have encountered some kind of issue with Phoenix. Additionally, 720 have reported that they had not been paid at all. Those cases are the priority and are now being addressed, said Lemay, with 486 of the 720 employees set to receive their pay on July 27. The others will get paid as soon as the relevant information is received from their departments, she promised.

Any public servant having issues with their pay is being told to contact Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) via their website.

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PWGSC has 56 temporary employees set up in Gatineau to help deal with the backlog by phone, in addition to a call centre already set up in New Brunswick. Dozens more people will be brought on in the next few weeks to increase the capacity even further, Lemay said.

At the same time, technical enhancements are being made to Phoenix, and an email alert system is being implemented to alert managers that a pay request needs approval.

PWGSC  is also “exploring options” to allow claims for financial losses suffered as a direct result of the Phoenix issues, Lemay said, which could include penalties for missed payments or late payments on student loans, houses or other property.

If you’re having trouble with the Phoenix pay system, the government has set up a web portal to take complaints.

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