Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's good to be back again.
With me is the deputy minister, Marie Lemay. Next to Marie is Gavin Liddy, the associate deputy minister. It's good to have both of them here with me today.
Good afternoon, bonjour. Thank you for the opportunity to provide you with another status update on the Government of Canada's Phoenix system.
At the outset, I will repeat what I have said numerous times, that what we are discussing today is not the fault of the employees at the Public Service Pay Centre in Miramichi, nor of government employees in general.
In the interest of brevity, my opening statement will focus on three main areas. First is the progress we have made, which is reflected by the current number of pay cases. Second is the actions we have taken since Deputy Lemay appeared before you on July 28. Third is a sense of what we expect pay administration will look like once it reaches a steady state.
As I've said many times, it is absolutely unacceptable for any public servant to not be paid or to be shortchanged for work performed. Fixing pay administration is a top priority and is certainly a top priority for me as the minister. I am committed to ensuring that federal employees get paid on time the money they are owed for work performed.
Today I can report that while there are employees still affected by pay problems, there has been steady progress since the committee last met. The numbers that follow are from the most recent complete pay period: August 24 to September 7.
In the priority one group are public service employees who informed us that they are not receiving any pay. There were actually 59 newly reported cases in that two-week period compared to 720 that were reported on July 18.
In the priority two group are those whose pay is affected by going on leave or exiting the public service. There were 335 new cases compared to 1,100 reported on July 18.
In the priority three group is the backlog of those employees receiving their regular pay, but missing supplementary pay. We started with 82,000 cases, and we are now at 67,500.
In late July our call centre received an average of 2,500 calls a day, and wait times were just under four minutes. The call centre is now receiving 1,250 calls a day on average, with a wait time of about five seconds.
You may be wondering why there is a discrepancy between the number of cases I just stated and the numbers that I reported when I appeared before you previously. As with any major IT system transformation, challenges were expected with Phoenix, and issues did arise. When Phoenix came online, the Public Service Pay Centre was faced with a backlog of about 40,000 cases. Early on, issues related to this backlog were, for the most part, manageable. However, reported pay problems outpaced our capacity to respond, which is why the department took decisive action and hired additional employees.
Since July 28, one of the two main sources of problems with the implementation of Phoenix was the large backlog of unprocessed pay requests. As you heard last time, four additional temporary pay units were set up to handle the backlog and allow the pay centre to deal with incoming pay requests and new cases. As of late July, 57 compensation advisers had been hired to work at the temporary unit in Gatineau, and at satellite offices in Winnipeg, Montreal, and Shawinigan, and those four offices were still being set up. They now have been up and running for several weeks and we now have over 200 employees—220 to be exact, and that number will go to 250—in place who are becoming more proficient with every case they handle.
The other major source of pay issues relates to the learning curve of Phoenix users. Deputy Lemay explained in July that when the department introduced Phoenix it underestimated the amount of training required. The implementation of Phoenix was much more than a new piece of software. It fundamentally changed the way government human resources need to operate. Much more should have been done to plan and prepare for the significant shift. Resources that were allocated for the implementation of Phoenix were not sufficient to ensure a smooth and successful rollout.
To fill this gap, Public Services and Procurement is holding training sessions for human resources staff across the government. Fourteen sessions have been scheduled this month that address those most common for users. The sessions also allow the department to gather feedback, which is used to adjust training materials and find ways to enhance the system.
The department continually renews its website with updated tools, technical guides, and frequently asked questions. Deputy Lemay is working closely with her deputy colleagues, chief financial officers, and heads of human resources across government to identify the problems that are arising and how to solve them.
There is also a constant flow of information to human resources staff and Phoenix representatives across government to highlight ways to prevent common issues. As well, we have a process for continuously improving Phoenix.
The department is working with IBM and pay specialists to identify ways to help our pay advisers more efficiently process payments. Our goal is to make it easier for our pay advisers to get pay flowing to their colleagues throughout the government.
While these efforts are critical, they do not provide much comfort to those who have experienced pay issues. We are working tirelessly to help each and every employee experiencing a problem with his or her pay. No employee need go without pay. I strongly encourage employees to request the emergency salary advances that can be provided by their own departments or through our Phoenix feedback form.
Employees who have received emergency advances or have been incorrectly overpaid will have these amounts recovered over multiple pay periods to reduce the associated financial burden. On September 15, Treasury Board Secretariat announced a process to reimburse employees for any out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a result of missing pay, such as financial penalties for missed or late payments. Employees can claim such expenses through their own departments using a form found on the Canada.ca website, as long as they have receipts and documentation.
Returning to the backlog for a moment, Deputy Lemay made a commitment to clear the backlog by October 31, and I am told we intend to meet that date. We are starting to see our satellite units becoming more operational and processing more transactions daily. The bulk of the transactions in the backlog should be addressed between the end of September and the end of October, which is when we will have the majority of our compensation advisers processing cases at full capacity.
Clearing the backlog alone will not bring us to what we call a steady state, however, and the temporary pay units will remain in place, and I have said that repeatedly as well. They will remain in place until we have reached steady state. We will have reached steady state when pay requests are processed efficiently, consistently, and with minimal errors.
We have made progress through the remedies we have put in place, but we still have a distance to go. Many partners have helped us get there. Key among these are the unions that have been instrumental in helping us identify problems and staff the temporary pay centre in Gatineau and the three additional pay hub units.
Deputy Lemay and I have visited the pay centre and met with employees in Miramichi. Employees heard it directly from me. They have my full support and in no way should they feel that this situation is of their making.
I have seen first-hand the hard work and commitment of employees involved with the Phoenix initiative. These employees are hard-working and dedicated to getting our pay system back on track. They have collectively stepped up to ensure that public service employees throughout the country are being paid for their work.
In June, I requested a review by the Auditor General of Canada, and I am pleased to report that he has agreed to perform a financial and performance audit of Phoenix.
The department is also committed to an independent assessment of the planning and implementation of Phoenix, which, of course, dates back many years. What has been learned from this experience will be used in planning for future projects.
We're pleased to be here today to answer your questions, and I look forward to having the opportunity to do so.
In her statement, Ms. Foote told us that everything would be resolved by October 31. Rather than doing partisan politics like my friends across the way, I want to say that I intend to table a motion. The people listening to us are the thousands of Canadian workers who have not been paid and are chasing their money.
Madam Minister, you asked me a little earlier if I had had a good summer. I had a good summer because, happily, I received the remuneration I was due. However, that is not what happened to one of the chief engineers of the coast guard, who is missing $8,000, or to a sailor who does not earn very much if you compare his salary to that of other federal employees, who has received no pay and cannot pay his mortgage or rent or buy groceries. In addition, you are surely aware of the pathetic case reported by the media of a woman who was coming back from sick leave because of breast cancer. She has four children and is going through an administrative nightmare.
These people did not have a good summer, and they are the reason we are here today. We are not here to do partisan politics. We want solutions. That is why, Mr. Chair, I intend to table a motion to invite the minister to report on the status of the situation, and her schedule. This situation is a disaster, Madam Minister. It is an absolute shambles.
Madam Minister, this is shocking. We have had the opportunity of hearing you, as well as Minister Brison. I think we had the wool pulled over our eyes, because we were told that everything was fine, thank you very much!
On March 10, the Deputy Minister of Public Works and Government Services talked about popping open the champagne. We have to put the champagne back in the refrigerator, because Canadian families have not been receiving their paycheques, and they need them.
On April 19, a month later, we were told that even if problem cases totalled only 1%, they would not launch the system. One per cent of 300,000 public servants means 3,000 people. There were 80,000, and now there are 60,000. Things are not going well at all.
Madam Minister, you knew from the beginning that the pay system was not ready to be implemented. Why did you give the go-ahead when you knew that this was going to create a complete shambles? I am going to put my question in English to facilitate understanding.
Why have you decided to give the green light to the implementation of Phoenix despite having been briefed on potential risks which could threaten the financial livelihood of Canadian families?
Thank you for the question.
First, let me correct something you said at the outset. At no point did I say that come October 31 everything will be solved. That is not what we said. We said that the backlog of cases, the 82,000, is what the department is telling me will be solved.
That doesn't mean we won't continue to have challenges. We are talking here about a payroll system of 300,000 employees. There is no payroll system in the country, I would expect, where you don't have challenges if you have a payroll of even half that magnitude.
What we are telling you is that when we get to what is referred to as a steady state, where you know you're going to have some challenges but nothing of the magnitude we have now.... The reality is that we will always have challenges. Will we have thousands of people going without pay? I hope not. That's certainly not where my head is.
I have said repeatedly that it is totally unacceptable for any public service employee to go without pay for work performed. To suggest that it would be acceptable to anyone...it's certainly not. I too have seen the stories that you have referenced. My heart aches for those individuals who are impacted. I too have constituents who are finding themselves in the same situation.
Of course it's not acceptable and we are doing everything we can to deal with that. When you talk about hitting a green light, what is really interesting is if you look at the decision made by the previous government.... I know that you have referenced partisanship. I try to steer away from that, because my issue is to solve the problem. My issue is to not continue to point fingers, but the reality is that what we inherited meant that 700 compensation advisers had been let go by the previous government.
Employees who had been doing that very work—you're now asking why the work is not getting done—were let go by the previous government. It's kind of hard when I ask, “Are you sure this is going to work? Are you sure I'm not going to face issues here? Are you sure that employees are not going to go without pay? Are you sure we're ready to go with Phoenix?”, and I'm told every time, after every briefing note, “Ready to go”, “Ready to go”, “Ready to go”. That is based on the information that would have come from the previous government's decision to implement Phoenix.
You're asking me questions here. The reality is that if those employees had not been let go, if the vision had been allowed to proceed without trying to realize $70 million in savings, I'm expecting that we would not be finding ourselves in the same situation we're in today.
Thank you, Madam Minister, for having come before us again today. It is always a pleasure to meet with you.
I am torn between shame and embarrassment when I see some of my colleagues across the way rending their garments over this situation. We met last July 28 to discuss this, and the committee examined urgent cases. At that time, we got some answers.
And yet, I see today that people are trying to assign blame rather than trying to solve the problem. Very little time is being devoted to the problems of those who are affected by this situation on a daily basis. I see from the reports that the situation is improving. In spite of some serious issues, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
We have talked at length about the origin of some of these problems. We can't both blame the person who is correcting the situation and ask them to change the system. You are correcting the situation.
I would like you to tell me a bit more about the current situation regarding priority number one. Some people have said that we were distorting information regarding people who never received any paycheques. However, corrective measures are being applied.
So that we may inform the population on this matter, could you tell us a bit more about the measures the department is taking to resolve this?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you, Deputy Minister, Associate Deputy Minister, and Assistant Deputy Minister, for coming to the committee.
This is a file that I'm not intimately familiar with, but I've been trying to pick it up. Certainly, I've been hearing about it in the media, and I've been hearing about it from folks in my riding. In fact, as recently as two weeks ago I was at an event in my riding and a federal employee asked when the Phoenix system would be fixed. He said that he was on parental leave and was still getting paid, but he was trying to be smart about it. He was putting the money into an account, he said, because he knows they're going to ask for it back.
There are obviously problems to fix. I hope everybody who's receiving payments and shouldn't be is as wise as that individual and is setting that money aside with the understanding that they're going to be asked to repay it.
As you know, people's paycheques are a very sensitive thing. In a construction company that I own, I employ close to 100 people, and there are a lot of things you can tamper with when it comes to employment. You can change people's job descriptions. You can change what they do. You can change their hours of work. You can change their roles and their positions, but once you've committed to paying them on a biweekly or monthly basis, that's like a sacred cow. We have electronic funds payments in my company, and I know from my own experience that when payment is due on Thursday at midnight, by Friday at 12:01 a.m. people are on their computers to make sure that money is in their account, because if it's not in the account, it creates a lot of problems. It creates problems with automatic payments that are due. It creates problems with cheques written on the understanding that the money would be in the account.
When that money doesn't show up in the account, it creates problems for the livelihoods of these people. It creates problems in their families because they get cheques that are bounced, they get damaged credit ratings, or they get overdraft charges at their banks. They get late payment notices and late payment fees, and their credit ratings are damaged.
I'm wondering about this. As a department, you've said that these employees are going to be compensated. How do you expect and intend to compensate for some of these things?