It is a privilege for me to be here to give the Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates an update on the Phoenix pay system, as I had committed to do during my last appearance.
I am also pleased to participate in the committee's review of the supplementary estimates (B) for both Public Services and Procurement Canada and Shared Services Canada.
Allow me to repeat, as I have done many times, that it is completely unacceptable for any employees to not receive the pay they earn. I have been seized with this issue since pay problems first emerged, and fixing the government's pay system is a top priority.
Public service pay is complex and unique. There is no other pay system in the country with almost 300,000 employees, across 101 departments, with 27 collective agreements and 80,000 business rules.
The planning of Phoenix and the broader pay transformation initiative was flawed, but casting blame doesn't help public servants facing frustrating pay delays. They need solutions.
When I was made aware of the extent of the problem, I took early and decisive action. Many measures have been put in place since late spring to address pay issues and support our employees.
I announced the creation of a satellite unit in Gatineau to immediately begin working on the backlog. Over the summer, we added and staffed three additional satellite offices in Shawinigan, Winnipeg, and Montreal to provide additional support. I committed to keeping these offices until the backlog is eliminated and issues are resolved.
We've taken several steps to better support employees. We established a new call centre and a Phoenix feedback form to make it easier for employees to reach us and to report pay problems. We have communicated regularly about the availability of emergency salary advances for these employees affected by pay problems. We also provide regular updates to media and employees on our progress.
On the training front, we updated our materials for managers and employees, and we made more information available on our website. We also provided targeted training sessions to human resources advisers on how to effectively work with Phoenix. The department implemented system enhancements to improve how Phoenix functions and to increase automation.
Finally, we have worked closely with all of our partners. The Treasury Board Secretariat put in place a claims process to repay employees who have incurred costs related to pay issues, such as interest charges. The Canada Revenue Agency has information on their website and a 1-800 number for employees concerned about the tax implications of pay issues. We continue to collaborate with unions on a number of fronts, including a recent agreement to have government IT specialists help enhance Phoenix.
These measures have allowed us to make significant progress, but more still needs to be done.
Let me turn now to our efforts going forward. When I last gave the committee an update, my officials and I discussed our goal to eliminate the backlog of approximately 82,000 employee pay cases by the end of October. Despite our best efforts, we could not completely eliminate the entire backlog, and to date we have closed the cases of 83% of employees in the backlog.
The majority of cases left in the backlog predate Phoenix. These are complex cases that require time-consuming manual calculations. We are seeing cases that date back several years and involve multiple transactions. For example, when dealing with a retirement, it is common to first have to close several related pay transactions, such as salary increment increases, actings, and promotions.
Once all of these files are closed, there are additional transactions needed, such as termination payments and severance payments, before final payment to an employee can be issued. This process can be very lengthy where we are dealing with old files, and the verification of salary and other amounts is required.
As of today, approximately 15,000 public servants still remain in the backlog. It is important to note that these cases involve supplementary pay, but missing pay of any sort is concerning, and a priority that must be addressed.
These remaining cases are being handled by a dedicated group of expert compensation advisers, and our goal is to process them as quickly as possible.
During my last appearance, I also spoke about reaching a steady state, where pay transactions are processed efficiently, consistently, and with minimal errors.
We are now seeing much higher rates of productivity in our pay offices. Users have become more accustomed to the system and incoming pay requests are now processed more quickly and efficiently. For example, in May we processed about 40,000 pay transactions. However, in September and October, that number increased to approximately 100,000 transactions each month.
The dip in processing productivity after Phoenix was implemented had an impact on the caseload being carried in the pay system. For a period of time, we received more transactions than we could address.
Because of the situation, we had to refine our plan to reach steady state, which includes the following three elements: a concentrated expert team to eliminate the backlog; a prioritized approach for the timely processing of cases in or entering the pay system; and a process of validation and improvement.
This plan considers productivity rates, incoming work, the availability of employees, and other variables. It also prioritizes cases that may cause employees financial hardships or have tax implications, namely, those with disability claims, returning from leave, terminations, and new hires.
A key lesson taken from the Phoenix experience has been the need to consult widely and validate. This is why I have told my department to review the plan and its assumptions with other client departments, employees, and unions. This focus on validation will ensure we have a robust and reliable go-forward approach. Many good ideas on how to improve the pay system have come from our front-line compensation advisers.
Steady state won't happen tomorrow, but we're seeing progress. The processing times for certain transactions have already improved. For example, overtime is now processed automatically once entered and approved in the system.
Much of the discussion around Phoenix has focused on software, but at the heart of our pay system is people: those using the system and those depending on it for their pay.
In our public service pay centre in Miramichi, which I visited again this month for the third time, we are currently training our next generation of compensation advisers. A few weeks ago, the department welcomed a new class of 91 recruits who have started the one-year training program that will give them the skills needed to work at the pay centre. The program ensures the presence of a constant pool of qualified compensation experts.
At this point, Mr. Chair, I would like to acknowledge the hard work of the employees in Miramichi. They are dedicated, committed, and are working so hard on a daily basis to make a difference.
As the year-end approaches, we are acutely aware that employees who were not paid correctly are worried about tax implications. Public Services and Procurement Canada is working closely with the Treasury Board Secretariat, the revenue agencies, and the unions to minimize the potential for problems and to ensure that employees have the information they need.
Employees can visit the CRA website or contact their call centre for general inquiries about taxes. Employees looking for information on their T4 slips can contact the Phoenix call centre.
There is a significant effort under way to support employees experiencing pay issues.
If employees have been overpaid, these amounts will be recovered over multiple pay periods to lessen the impact. We are working directly with employees facing financial hardship to identify other payment arrangements, if needed. Those who have incurred out-of-pocket expenses as a result of missing pay can seek reimbursement through a Treasury Board Secretariat claims process.
I understand and appreciate this has been a very difficult situation, and I appreciate as well the patience of everyone whose pay has been affected.
Thank you to the staff who are working so hard to process pay transactions. On my most recent visit to the pay centre in Miramichi, I heard from employees about the progress being made and the challenges that still remain. This team is dedicated to helping their colleagues across the government, and I expressed to them my support and gratitude.
There are important lessons to be learned from this experience. That is why I called the Auditor General of Canada to do a full review of the Phoenix project. In the meantime, I have put on hold plans to transition additional departments to the pay centre.
The government needed a new pay system. However, the planning of Phoenix and the broader pay transformation initiative was driven by cuts instead of by service. The former government sought annual savings of $17 million at the expense of employees.
Mr. Chair, I don't need to convince anyone that Phoenix should have been better planned and implemented. Pay transformation was compromised as soon as the decision was taken to eliminate the jobs of some 700 compensation staff before we had transitioned to Phoenix. Had those jobs been kept longer, we would not be in the situation we are in today.
We have been working very hard to address pay issues. Our backlog is almost 80% eliminated. Processing rates are up, and we now have a plan to arrive at our steady state.
There is still much to do, and deputy minister Lemay will provide a new update on our progress toward resolving backlog cases and an update on our plan to reach steady state when she meets with the media on December 14.
Turning now to the department's supplementary estimates (B), but keeping with Phoenix, the department identified the need for an additional $50 million in extraordinary funding and is requesting this funding in supplementary estimates (B). We discussed this figure when I appeared before you in September.
The funding is composed of $5.7 million for additional support from IBM, such as a 24-7 troubleshooting support and refinements to the system; $24 million for our satellite offices and call centres; $16.1 million for our complaints centre, training and support to departments, and system maintenance; and $4.2 million for contingencies.
Turning to Shared Services Canada's supplementary estimates, Shared Services Canada is seeking additional funding of $4.7 million, which would be largely used to support initiatives under way at client departments. For instance, $1.6 million would go to help modernize Canada's weather radar network for Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Other funding is directed to support ongoing projects at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency. Also, $1.5 million is earmarked for added telecommunications costs related to new government employees.
These investments would strengthen and complement the work of Shared Services Canada as it also resets its transformation plan.
Thank you for your attention, and I'm happy to answer your questions.