The Liberals have agreed to an emergency summer meeting of the House of Commons operations and estimates committee on Thursday to determine what, exactly, went so horribly wrong with the government’s new pay system.
Liberal MP Yasmin Ratansi, the vice-chair of the committee, gave the green light for the 2 p.m. meeting after the Opposition Conservatives and the NDP both issued statements on Monday saying more needed to be done to update them on the problems with the Phoenix program.
“For a government committed to openness and transparency, I would hope that Liberal committee members would welcome an opportunity to examine what led to this fiasco,” said NDP public works critic Erin Weir in his statement.
Instead of streamlining the process by which federal public servants receive their paycheques, Phoenix seems to have thrown the entire system into disarray in recent months.
Global News attempted to contact Public Works and Government Services Canada on Tuesday to get an update on the specific costs associated with cleaning up the mess, but received no response.
Here’s a look at how the government reached this point, and what’s next:
How did this start?
The Phoenix debacle has only been making major headlines for a month or two, but the story really began back to 2010. At the time, the Conservatives were in power and the party’s current leader, Rona Ambrose, was minister of Public Works and Government Services.
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In the summer of that year, Ottawa announced that it would be consolidating payroll services in Miramichi, N.B., and that a new electronic pay system would be purchased to replace the existing one, which was 40 years old.
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It was a major undertaking. The federal government is responsible for paying over 300,000 public-sector employees, transactions which total over $20 billion a year.
Computer giant IBM was eventually awarded the contract to design and implement Phoenix.
In total, moving from the old system to the new one was expected to cost taxpayers $186.6 million. But one document from late 2013 predicted the government would save around $78 million a year once the “efficiencies” were in place.
Phoenix flames out
Phoenix officially launched (a few months behind schedule) in February 2016, and almost immediately there were glitches. At the time, officials believed that the problems were isolated and could be handled.
Within two months, however, it became clear that Phoenix was in the midst of a major flame-out.
Tens of thousands of people were finding that their overtime pay and medical benefits weren’t being paid out on time, and for approximately 720 public servants, the money dried up completely.
Mortgage payments and student loans went unpaid as a result, and the unions representing federal public servants stepped in, deciding it was time to take Ottawa to court to get things moving again.
One union representative called Phoenix a “boondoggle.” Public Services and Procurement Deputy Minister Marie Lemay called the situation “completely unacceptable,” and a second payroll centre was opened in Gatineau, Que., to deal with the backlog.
A total of 100 employees were to be hired to staff that centre, but as of Tuesday, the cost of the emergency measure had not been disclosed.
Lemay promised that tomorrow, July 27, a majority of the people who ended up with no pay at all would receive a big chunk of back-pay. They are the first priority, according to the government.
Public Works and Government Procurement says it will then be working its way through the remaining backlog with the help of the employees in both New Brunswick and Gatineau.
“Addressing all these cases will take several months,” the department warns on its website.
In addition to the emergency meeting of the government operations and estimates committee, the federal auditor general, Michael Ferguson, has also been asked to look into the Phoenix debacle.