It would seem, almost without saying, that if you work for an organization, you should get paid promptly and properly. In international organizations, there is a refrain that is heard for paying of dues — in full, on time, and without reservation. The only time that people should be having problems getting paid is if there is a glitch in paperwork or computers, or maybe when they’re first starting (longer lead time), or perhaps if the company is having cash-flow problems. None of them are acceptable, but the reasons make sense.
On the surface, an organization like the federal government with more than 250K workers should expect at any one time, perhaps an issue rate of 1-3%. Particularly when the people have been working for the organization for a while, most are on salary rather than shifts and hourly totals that change (i.e. requiring the submission of detailed timesheets), and nothing has changed. So when people see the disaster that is Phoenix, it’s hard to fathom “what went wrong?” other than complete incompetence, even if the numbers are not as bad as they first appear.
While lots of people erroneously point to the old system as “working just fine”, the government had a problem. They had a distributed system with different departments processing pay differently, low economies of scale, frequent errors that could go undetected for quite some time, and a centralized payment system run by Public Works that was not only ageing but had serious security concerns given the number of departments with different systems that had to access it regularly. Think of it as 60+ sub-organizations all with their own processes. Some smaller organizations loved it. As did their employees. They had control, you could make a change on short notice, no backlogs, and more importantly, there was someone you could not only call, but you could also probably even MEET with them in person.
But the move in all service lines across government, insurance, manufacturing, etc. for HR and benefits is to move away from the high-cost, high-touch, in-person service to models of “click – call – consult”. With the “call” being the most frustrating for people sometimes, because you call, and get nowhere, as front-line service in all areas of the economy is almost robotic parrots — “Have you read our website?”. Service standards frequently fell with the changes rather than improved (the expectation is an improvement, because of savings with less intense “touches” on the file without having to call and deal with inefficient in-person conversations), mainly as error rates go up. Although they’re not exactly treated as error rates. They get the info in, it’s not right, so they send it back for it to be completed i.e. for more info.
But here’s the lie to the numbers…that isn’t counted as an issue for the processing people, because they shouldn’t be dinged if the submitting organization doesn’t provide them with all the right information. It’s one of the perverse effects of key performance indicators in service organizations. If someone is in danger of not meeting their KPI, it increases the incident rate for anything that stops or resets the service clock. Take for instance the City of Ottawa’s permit approval process. They were criticized for slow and inefficient approvals of work permits for home renovations (other permits too, but I’m focusing on home renovations). So they implemented a five-day service standard…once you submitted an application, they would process it within five business days, including any inspections that were required to start the work. Great, right? It sounds even like a pretty reasonable standard.
Except some contractors immediately found the system could be circumvented…on day 4, the inspector could look at the file, find something minute wrong with the application, and send it back as “incomplete” asking for more information. Which meant the clock would reset — the application only counts once it is fully complete. The contractor or homeowner would fix it, resubmit, and on Day 4 get another request. Some of them were blatant delays — like asking the colour of paint to be used in the basement (which has nothing to do with the approval process, they would just use it as an excuse to reset the clock). Insurance company processors do it too. As do tech response lines…with my ISP, it was almost comical. I would ask them to do something, they would set up the ticket. And five minutes later I would get a stupid question that had NOTHING to do with solving my problem, but it would change the status of the ticket from “with them to fix” to “with the client for more info”. It stops the clock on their metrics and puts it back on me. And makes that employee look awesome because their clock is never running. Even if in the background they are working on my problem, they can do it at normal speed because the clock isn’t running on their service standard.
So the government had 60+ organizations processing their own pay, the government in power decided to amalgamate it all to one single system for the cost savings that would theoretically result, and work began on designing the new system, code-named Phoenix. Whatever idiot decided to name a system after a mythical creature that starts with reducing everything to ashes first before rising to glory was sure prophetic about the first part.
The Decision to Amalgamate
When the amalgamation started, lots of doomsayers said it would never work. It would be a disaster. It would be bad for employees. Unfortunately, a lot of those doomsayers were in three camps that always signal doom with any proposal.
First of all, there are the unions. They hate anything resembling cost savings as it means fewer employees, or more pointedly, fewer members dues for them. Which makes any of their “predictions” automatically suspect. It also doesn’t help that a lot of their complaints since then are about 10% fact, 40% errors, and 50% spin. But I’ll come back to that.
Second, many departments complained. Except they weren’t complaining that it would be a disaster so much as saying “it won’t work for us.” In other words, just like every other proposal to have common systems or single approaches to files across government, every department claims they are a unique and special snowflake that can’t deliver on their mandate if they are forced to use the same type of paperclip as every other department. As a relatively proud civil servant, it pains me to say that some departments seem to have turned Yes, Minister episodes into training materials for obfuscation. Let’s study it. Let’s consider the ramifications and implications for our department. Let’s pilot it — no, not with us, of course, we’re not the right environment, let’s try it OVER in THAT department. Anywhere but here. It’s borderline ridiculous. And anything with IT is at the top of the list.
I’ll give some of them the benefit of the doubt that they had serious concerns about the implications for their department, but let’s look at it from a pure public administration perspective. You are hired by the Government of Canada. You are an employee of the Government of Canada. Many people move from department to department (more so in HQ than regions, but still). All under the banner of the Government of Canada. And you are paid by Public Works with the rates of pay set in negotiation with the Treasury Board — both departments of the Government of Canada, and common for almost all 250K+ employees. Yet your pay and HR were managed by department X. Wait, what? There are some arguments in favour of localized service, but that doesn’t mean it should be managed by the department, it just means you need a local service rep of Public Works.
Finally, the third camp sounding alarms was the group of departments actually responsible for putting it in place. Public Works. HR groups in central agencies. All of whom said, “let’s do it in stages”. In other words, not everyone at once.
Except the government of the day saw all three camps as saying “delay delay delay”. Unresponsive to what they wanted to do. Not unlike the same refrains they had heard from departments over the previous years on multiple occasions. The resistance of civil servants to what elected officials were telling them was the policy direction to follow.
The “go” order was issued.
What works in the private sector doesn’t always work in government
I love reading people’s online comments or even news articles about how HR is easy, benefits are simple, pay is the simplest of all. And any trained monkey could do it. Most of the people writing those comments are flat out stupid, but even amongst people who should know better, the disrespect shown to those who do government HR is astounding.
Some of it is well-earned. Much of government HR is about compliance with rules. So, like it or not, HR people are frequently seen as roadblocks, not truly “enabling” services. My brother worked in government HR for a while, and at one point noted that the biggest challenge was moving from conversations with managers about “which form to fill out” to “what do you want to achieve”, from rules-based process discussions to strategic enabling assistance (my words, not his). That’s a push-pull environment of course. On the push side, managers just want to fill out the forms to get it done. On the pull side, many of the HR people started as administrative clerks and worked their way up. So most of them both seem like and act like administrative people. Not strategic advisors. That changes with levels, of course, but not as a percentage overall.
So if something is wrong, it must be because the “clerks” in HR are idiots, right?
Well, let’s look at the comparison with the private sector. The majority of organizations in the private sector have fewer than 100 employees, and if you go up to 1000, you’re left with a small percentage that is above that threshold. Not surprisingly, what works for 100 employees doesn’t scale well when you suddenly have 250,000 employees in one organization.
Equally, let’s look at the variations in job functions. The private sector has lots of customized, individualized contracts or employment agreements. But very few of them have many variations in the way the various aspects work. They almost all have one of two benefit packages — one for executives, one for non-executives. They have pay rates, but unless something changes, they continue at that rate forever, and the changes are threefold — union contract changes, identified promotions or raises, or bonuses. And classification is often limited to five to ten different job categories.
The federal government has 250K employees, and over 70 different job classifications, not including executives. Those union contract changes come at different times and there are multiple unions for multiple departments. Each classification has multiple levels, usually at least six, and within each level, there are often five to eight “bands”. For those doing the math at home, that means approximately 70 classifications x average of 6 levels x average of 6 bands = 2520 rates of pay. For each possible employee. All based on how long they have worked for the department, when contracts were signed, what their previous level was, etc.
Now, let’s look at what happens in the private sector for mobility. Lots of people work for company X for a number of years, and if they leave, that’s it. They’re done. In the government, if you move from Department X to Department Y, you’re still an employee of the Government of Canada. All your seniority, benefits, HR files, etc. go with you. Even if you’ve CHANGED unions because you changed jobs. Yep, people often change classifications, and different classifications are represented by different unions. I have been an IS, PM and EC. That meant different unions with different rules and benefits packages. With different dues rates. Oh, and the benefits packages have different options too — private, semi-private, base; single or family, etc. That’s not unusual, all benefits packages tend to have that in the private sector too, just that it continues when you change departments so there’s (hopefully) no break in service.
Finally, you might say, “oh, okay, pay and benefits are more complicated but it’s all computerized”. Except on top of all of that, one thing that the private sector doesn’t have is extensive rules on HR that rely not only on labour law but adds on layers and layers of legislation because government employees are paid from the taxes paid by citizens. Aspects of merit, impartiality, ethics, etc., all have to be regulated and set for government employees, and defined, interpreted and implemented by HR. For everything from leave to initial hiring or termination for retirement. There are literally thousands of rules and regulations applying to government HR to respect Parliament’s will through legislation.
And as ANYONE who has ever worked in HR knows, every case is unique. Almost NONE of them fit the same model as the system intended. The system expects you will be hired. You will get a promotion probably at some point. You might change jobs or even departments. You might take leave. All very orderly up until you retire or quit.
But life doesn’t work like that. Take, for example, a person who went on maternity leave. Except it wasn’t maternity leave initially, even though it was coded that way, it was actually sick leave with pay up until date X, and then maternity leave kicked in, with EI coming online. But the forms were retroactively done. After a pay increase had been applied for a yearly increment, plus a new contract was signed. Oh, and they changed classifications just before they went on leave. But they were in an acting position just before that. Oh, and they had changed departments six months before, and the file wasn’t transferred yet to the new department — low priority, after all, they were still being paid. Oh, and they’re with a new union agreement now which has different provisions. Plus they seem to have gotten married in there and changed their name but haven’t submitted their paperwork showing the name change. So the new forms are all signed by Mary Smith, but the system shows her legal name as Mary Jones. And she’s at home on bed rest so we can’t ask her for paperwork, can we?
Don’t get me started on all the other permutations and combinations in there. There are tons of people who have entered the public service with some pay and benefits background and thought they were well-prepared. And then saw the reality in the public service and went, “whoof”.
But the old system worked just fine, didn’t it?
One of the most disgusting aspects of the rhetoric from unions around Phoenix is their “I told you so” attitude because it conveniently omits several facts from the narrative.
Like the fact that they were often the ones complaining to labour boards and appeal boards that the “government got it wrong” on pay. Grievances filed because department X interpreted the rules differently from department Y, and why isn’t it the same for everyone?
Grievances filed because a person got a promotion and moved from department X to department Y, but their file wasn’t being transferred very quickly to the other department, so the raise hadn’t kicked in yet. A friend noted on Facebook this week that she changed jobs and 11 weeks later, her file hadn’t been transferred yet. Eleven weeks? Under the old system, it took forever. It took six months when I went from DFAIT to CIDA back in the 90s. In about 2010 or so, an open forum at HRSDC had someone ask the DM about how long it should take, and her response was that it took a year for HER file to be transferred when she became a DM. A year. For the top executive in the department.
It was all a question of prioritization for the old department — the employee had left, was still being paid, etc. So when they did triage, they served THEIR current employees first, and within that, employees who needed to be paid first. So it would take a while before they would get to it, and they also had to make sure ALL leave requests (which used to be on paper) had all been filed and processed properly before they sent the file over. Everything had to be done, checked, verified, and COMPLETE before it could be released. Some small departments did it fast; some large departments had six-month backlogs. The worst I ever heard was eighteen months.
Grievances filed because a new employee started with Department X and it took three months for that Department to submit the proper paperwork to get their pay started.
In the end, everybody gets what is owed to them, but delays were grieved as unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong — there WERE unacceptable timelines.
But the government in power said, “Okay, we’ll have one pay system and one HR file system, and all those grievances will go away”, and so the unions got what they wanted. A solution to get rid of those pesky inter-departmental transfer issues.
Which they conveniently and disgustingly omit to reference when they say, “We told you so.”
Enter the Phoenix
More than 250K employees. More than 60+ organizations. All transferred to a system that wasn’t up and running or even piloted yet. All centralized, with new procedures and processes for all departments to follow. With many of the people in the OLD departments who processed that stuff all gone. Mostly through reassignment to other jobs, some through DRAP buyout packages, some moved to Phoenix. Which created another huge challenge for Phoenix. They didn’t get all the corporate memory people who had years of experience in pay and benefits to move to Miramichi. It was a decision that was implemented, but it was almost the perfect storm for bad implementation.
But even with a perfect system and high workloads, the systemic issues were bound to overwhelm it for reasons related to six types of incoming files.
A. BACKLOGS – SIMPLE FILES: On the back-end, the problems were clear — untested systems, the full implementation from the beginning, complicated rules, and new staff to implement it. Yep, that sucks as bad you would think. And so any request would present more challenges to handle than usual. New approaches, longer service times. That happens everywhere with change (and is identified as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to change in the management literature — looking for the benefits from Day 1 instead of recognizing that the benefits are on the long-tail, not the short-hump). But guess what happened? Not only did initial Phoenix processing take longer than the previous methods, some departments simply STOPPED processing anything they had done previously. It wasn’t a transition, it was “Okay, let’s stop completely”. They filled out the basics and sent it on to Phoenix to handle. Long-term, there will be a balance, but in the beginning, many of the steps that departments will eventually end up doing when everything is worked out were just dumped on Phoenix. So backlogs started occurring even for simple files.
B. BACKLOGS – COMPLICATED FILES: If you have seen the news, they frequently have talked about this area as the primary stopper. The “complicated” files. Except that no one really knows what that means or believes there is anything complicated about pay. And the unions love to harp on it.
Except the problems originated with the OLD system, not the new. So let’s craft an example…Let’s say John and Jane both started work at CIDA in 1997. Both were new to the government. And they both started as PM-2s, lowest band, represented by PSAC. Then their stories diverge.
|John was married with two kids, and opted for the family private room benefits coverage.||Jane was single and opted for individual semi-private coverage.|
|John worked for CIDA for the last 20 years.|
He received promotions four times and is now a PM-06 — PM03 in 2000, PM 04 in 2001, PM05 in 2007 and PM06 in 2010.
He took annual leave each year plus sick leave occasionally.
He had acting assignments four or five times in 20 years.
No change in marital status, no additional kids, everything stayed the same.
|Jane got married in 1998 and changed her benefits package to family semi-private.|
She was promoted in 2000 and 2001 to PM03 and PM04, and then got a job at Status Of Women in 2007 as an EC-05. She then moved around — TBS in 2008, Fisheries in 2009 as well as Transport, and Health Canada. She was promoted to PM-06 in 2014 at Health Canada and EC-07 in 2017 at ESDC.
She went on maternity leave in 2008, 2011, and 2013. Each time, she modified her benefits package.
She took care and nurturing leave of three extra months after her first two children, and worked part-time in an acting position after her third child at 60% for one year.
She also did Leave with Income Averaging in 2016 and 2017, overlapping her promotion and new contracts being signed.
John’s file represents what they call “stock” accounts. They are relatively stable, not much going on, and almost all of the changes are relatively straightforward. And almost entirely able to be automated for the changes.
Jane’s file? I know you’re expecting me to say hers is complicated, but it’s not. It’s just normal, a so-called “flow” account. It’s average. It’s what most people’s files look like across government. She got promoted, she changed jobs, she got married, she changed benefits packages, she got all her yearly increments, she took different types of leave. None of that makes it complicated.
The complicated files are ones where, like the original example above on maternity, things are coded one-way, and then something changes. Or the info was incomplete or not done right or not done right away. The person who went on maternity leave, but then sent in a doctor’s note for the first 3 weeks which changes it to sick leave with pay. With acting positions involved, or overtime, or the fact that they just moved to the job and the old files hadn’t been sent over yet.
Why does Phoenix have so many complicated files? Because LOTS of files got transferred to them as “Here, you figure it out”. So Health Canada had files that were not complete, or rather not certified complete, with all the leave and stuff processed and done, that they sent to Phoenix. But the person had left Health Canada to work for Transport, and thus the file hadn’t been transferred yet. So Transport hasn’t been able to do all the incoming “change”, nor process all the leave forms since then. Oh, and guess what? The person did a lateral from HC to Transport, and then got a promotion and left for Fisheries. So there is a THIRD department involved, and the file hadn’t even left the first department yet. Plus there were actings and promotions and leave, oh my.
And the line departments sent all of it to Phoenix. In other words, all of their problem files were sent to Phoenix. Often with incomplete info. Not intentionally in most cases, just that Transport and Fisheries didn’t have the info from HC in the first place. So then Phoenix has three sets of requests for one file and doesn’t know what the heck to do with them as they aren’t even together in one file. It’s THREE separate requests coming in. But you can’t process the Transport or Fisheries requests until you figure out where the HC file stands.
These are the “complicated” ones. Not because the system can’t handle it, or Phoenix was just a disaster, it’s because the old systems didn’t fix it before it was submitted.
And most of the time spent on these files is just figuring out what the heck is going on with the files i.e. constructing the timeline and then processing them in order from the beginning. Meanwhile, these take WAY more time than a normal file and often requires asking for more information which departments don’t want to respond to — they transferred the file to Phoenix to get rid of it so they wouldn’t have to deal with it. They KNEW the info was incomplete, they sent it anyway as Phoenix would “figure it out”. Except they can’t because they don’t have all the info. Which isn’t like the service standard problem above where people ask for more info to stop the clock — the clock is still running on these. They need the info to fix it, and they don’t have it.
IT has an old term for this — Garbage in, garbage out.
C. NEW REQUESTS – MAJOR CHANGES: What constitutes a major change?
For the pay and benefits people, starting and stopping pay. And by this, I mean actually getting paid for the first time vs. getting paid for the last time. So most people would agree that this is the highest priority. Obviously, right?
So the person who was in the backlogs above gets processed AFTER these people? Well, yeah, they have to be. One is simple or complicated, the other is SOMEONE NOT GETTING PAID or getting paid too much so they’ll have to pay it all back at some point.
If there was no backlog, these people would be at the head of the line. But here’s a kicker. Some of these people are ALREADY in the queue. In fact, most of them are already in the queue above. How? Well, look at the numbers. There are 240K backlog “cases”…but only 250K people in government. Are there really 250K “cases”? No. There were 240K requests, and now there are 500K. Multiple requests per person.
But when they triage that down, only 50-60K are actually “complicated” ones, and even those using the above example are often for the same people. Some estimates put it down around 10K in fact when you eliminate duplicates.
Where it gets really fuzzy is the “moderate” change category. This is someone who is getting paid, but not getting paid the right amount. Like someone who got a new job, with a promotion, and the “raise” hasn’t kicked in yet. Six months or a year after the promotion. Why? Because they’re not a priority to process first. They’re GETTING paid, they have a salary, what they don’t have is the right amount. Well, that’s a correction thing. Compared to those who aren’t getting paid at all, that’s clearly the second tier.
That’s estimated to be about another 20K or so. This leaves another 160K or so of people who have pay-related changes i.e. aren’t getting the right amount, but it’s not significant. Wait, what? Of course, it’s significant, right? It’s about PAY!
Or at least that is the rhetoric from the unions. But let’s look at that group and who it includes. Someone who acted for five days as a PM-02 instead of a PM-01. What does this mean? It means an annual raise from $51538 to $57430 if they were at the base of the PM01 salary. At the minimum though, it has to be at least 4%. So $2100 to $5800. Per annum. For a week? $40 to $111. Before taxes. Not exactly the same as not getting paid. Yes, you’re owed, and even $10 can be significant to an individual. But not the most likely one to be treated as a priority. You are not losing your house because you didn’t get a $10 temporary raise.
What else is there? All the people who just got their contract renewed, and whose files had a pending action already. If your file wasn’t up to date, either because of promotions or other backlogs, it is pretty hard for the pay people to suddenly give you your incremental raises. If your file was simple, it went through; if it was flagged already for certain categories of problems, it didn’t. Which meant the new contracts didn’t all go through automatically and that was 250K new requests that hit the system. One of the triennial surges that happens EVERYWHERE in government, old or new system. And guess what? If your file was messed up under the old system, you didn’t get your raises then either.
Something else the union fails to mention when they talk to the press.
D. NEW REQUESTS – SIMPLE CHANGES: These ones would seem almost normal everyday things, and you might think there are no problems with them. And you’d be mostly right. They’re going through just fine. But they don’t involve a lot of decision-making or rule interpretation, they’re simple. Unless of course your file was complicated already, in which case some of these grind to a halt too.
But there are gremlins hiding in there too. Bank account changes are considered “simple” changes. But if it doesn’t get done quickly, and someone closes their bank account while switching over to a new one, suddenly this isn’t an administrative problem, it’s a real pay problem — because they’re going to send your money to the old account that doesn’t exist anymore and it will bounce. And suddenly you’re not getting paid!
The real challenge for the government is that they DRASTICALLY underestimated the number of changes per person that would be caught by this system because the old system had such poor data and was smaller in scope. They estimated that 20% of the employees could have changes in a given year, but the current stats show almost 200% of the employees i.e. two for every employee are in the queue. Part of that is bad data, part of that is a backlog, part of that is triennial contract renewals, part of that is enlarged scope. But it’s killing them.
E. NEW REQUESTS – COMPLICATED CHANGES: Some of the new requests are going into complicated files. Why? Because some involve labour relations, or retro changes in coding, or something unique with a leave request. Often it’s because of something like sick leave without pay but tied to other issues like medical retirement or even a death payout. This isn’t unusual, but with backlogs already in place, the service times on the new cases are affected too.
F. NEW REQUESTS – EMERGENCY ADVANCES OR INCREMENTAL COSTS: When I look at the list of things above, most of them are simply wrong. People shouldn’t have to deal with it. Minor delays of a month or two, or even six months for a file transfer were normal, but the bigger challenge now is that not only is it not being done, but it’s also a black hole. You can’t find out anything, you have no idea if it’s being done, or being done right, it’s an abyss.
But the one that is truly egregious is the category of people who are having to do emergency pay advances. Yep, if you haven’t been paid for three months, that is totally unacceptable. Lawsuit-level even. Grievances out the wazoo, media attention, all of it. Full stop. Unacceptable.
Yet I’m disgusted by the union antics and even some employees’ behaviour. This category is an incredibly small number, yet the unions rant and rave that all 500K cases are the same, totally unacceptable. Umm, you acted last week for three days and it’s not reflected in your pay yet? Cry me a small creek, cuz it ain’t worth a river. You haven’t got your mailing address changed that you submitted last week, despite the fact that you MOVED six months ago? Don’t even aim for a creek. Those aren’t the cases worth mentioning in the same breath, but they make good headlines. I’m okay with using the bad cases as poster children for the problem, but let’s try to keep it professional. Lies and spin help NO ONE. Don’t even get me started on the union president who suggested scrapping everything and starting over. Other than being monumentally stupid, it’s easy for her to say — almost none of the employees working on Phoenix are part of her union. But guess what? The old system SUCKED too. It was just hidden in 60 departments instead of just one.
But the disgusting ethics issues don’t stop with just the union leadership. In addition to the emergency advances, the government set up administrative recovery systems so that if you weren’t paid, and you had to use your credit cards or incurred admin penalties for loan refinancing on houses or cars, you could submit claims to get the incremental costs covered. So, for example, if you had to buy groceries on your credit card, and you had to pay interest on the grocery costs, you could ask for coverage of the interest costs. In law, this is called “making you whole” — making it so that you’re not out of pocket for any extra costs as a result of the pay problems. Sounds fair, right? Simple, understandable?
Then you have some f***ing wastes of skin who were carrying 40K in credit card debt before this all began, and not only asked for the interest payments on the full 40K but also to pay the 40K too. Or submitted requests to reimburse for the mortgage or car payments, not the extra interest or administrative charges. Excuse me? That’s not an administrative glitch on the part of the employees, that’s them trying to use the Phoenix disaster to scam the system and get free money to pay for their house or car or bad past money management decisions. I have NO sympathy for this crew. And when it came to light that their claims were being rightfully denied, the f***ing unions complained that the government wasn’t honouring claims. Not honouring claims? How about giving the government credit for not FIRING those employees and having them charged with FRAUD for submitting false claims?
The way forward
There are idiots in the service who think this is a simple programming problem. These idiots piss me off as much as the unions. This is NOT a programming/computer problem. Yes, there are problems. Yes, it’s glitchy and needs to be fixed. But the majority of problems are not an IT system problem, it’s an administrative system process problem. If we can’t identify the problem, we can’t find the right solution. And complaining about the contractor points us in the wrong direction.
Equally, there is no alternative to the current system. We can’t scrap it, wave a magic wand, and have a new or old system up and running tomorrow. All of the admin problems would STILL exist. And presidents of unions that have never implemented anything should shut up about topics about which they know apparently less than nothing.
Grievances should continue to be filed. But only if they are TRUE grievances of non-pay. Mildly wrong pay, delayed raises, etc. are not grounds for grievances. They’ll get to it, you’re just not a priority. Pull your head out of your ass and realize there are people with REAL problems, and it isn’t you.
The system needs to prioritize which files they fix first. There is NO viable alternative.
Right now, they are prioritizing resources within tranches — so new admin requests are handled if they are easy and quick to do. No reason to add them to the backlog, if they don’t have to, right? I disagree.
New starts are priorities for processing to get them on the pay system. Of course, they are, they have to get paid. Absolutely. And to be honest, if they are just starting a new job, they likely have the least resources to fall back on, so they’d be a priority anyway. Which isn’t to ignore the HR benefit of successful onboarding. Recruit who you need to recruit, get them in, get them paid.
Actings? Leaves? Promotions? Even terminations? Nope, not a priority. They’re getting paid, and I don’t deny someone in there could be a priority for need, but as a class, nope, not a priority. For overpayments, if it eventually means the government has to write off more than usual, that’s the government’s problem. Shouldn’t be on employee’s backs. There should even be a rule applied — if it’s a Phoenix error, and they don’t fix it for over a year after you reported it, they can’t go farther back than a year. Or two.
Contract increases? If it can be done with a mouse click, sure, I suppose, but I think in fairness it should be everyone possible or nobody. And it’s pretty hard to justify why one group is having people process their raises when another group isn’t being paid.
Non-payments? Absolutely. Top of the pile. If you’re not getting paid, you’re at the head of the line with new people.
So what does that leave? The complicated backlog. If they don’t clean it up first, then the other requests are all going to continue to be problems. Because they compound the original work, and if you fix something that applies to now, but they have old requests pending, you may have to undo them later when you process the original requests. While that is pretty convoluted thinking and wording, think of it this way. Each year, something builds on the last year. It’s a layer based on your years worked, leave accumulated and taken, etc. The only way forward to do it correctly the first time is to make sure the second layer sits properly on the first, and the third on the second. If you fix layer 12 now and then realize it was off at layer 6, guess what? Layer 12 changes probably weren’t done right and will have to be redone.
What does this mean? It means some extreme prioritization is needed.
1. People not being paid at all — whatever resources it takes to resolve these ones, of whatever type, that’s what is needed. Every instrument available should be thrown at it until any non-pay backlogs are gone. Nothing else matters until that’s fully under control and you are down only to people who have had interruptions or non-starts in the last month. Maybe two weeks for the first cheques. That is the most important service standard of all. In full, on time, and without reservation. There’s a small delay for bank processing times, etc, but it should be less than a month in total. They’re trying to do this, but they’re spread too thin on other files and it is affecting their service standard too often.
2. People with backlogged files — Any request that goes back over two years should be fixed first (the layering metaphor), then one year, six months etc. Until we catch up to the new cutoff date (say December 1). Maybe within that backlog, there is additional triage going on, but literally, Phoenix affects EVERYONE and so we all have to accept that the solution is from everyone. Which means if it isn’t about someone getting paid at all, or maybe a more than 40% of their pay issue, it’s within this second category. The downside is that the old files are more complicated, and it means the backlog will grow in the short-term. Which none of the politicians want to see happen. But you know what? Setting an arbitrary date, with layering explanation, is not only sound public administration, but it is also a legally defensible approach. Governments have done it before, as have insurance companies. It’s the only “sensible solution” and it is considered a STRONG mitigating strategy (I’ll return to this at the end). If I had to prioritize within there, I would probably go with time first, and then benefit changes (which has knock-on effects), leave changes affecting pay, file transfers and promotions (which change annual salaries), actings, leave not affecting pay, administrative changes, and terminations.
3. People with new requests — likely the same prioritization once we get the backlog eliminated, and then a series of new service standards. New pay and terminations should be two weeks. Leave affecting pay, benefit changes, leave not affecting pay, administrative changes, and actings should probably be within a month. File transfers and promotions could take six weeks.
4. Cost recoveries — I’m not sure this is a totally separate category, it is more the implication after everything is done. But I think there are two aspects. First and foremost, where we have overpayments that are not simple tweaks of pays and comes out to less than 5% in the year it was wrong, I think it should be written off if it is more than two years old. The pay people would go crazy on this. The legislation is clear…you’re entitled to what you’re entitled to and no more, and if we made an admin error, you should have told us. So if we find it, we recover it.
Except that requires two premises to be in place…first, that we had reliable info to know if we were being paid correctly or not and thus could spot the error, and second, that it was dealt with in a timely manner. After two years, in my view, the government should be estopped from seeking recovery. It’s just a disaster and those premises do not hold.
I set it at 5%, because below that, you’d have no idea if it was right or wrong just by the final amount. Maybe that could even be as high as 10%. After that though, it would be hard to argue you were getting 10% more than you should have been and didn’t notice. Maybe an argument could be made to make it as high as 15%, but that would be a hard legal threshold to prove, in my opinion. 5-10% would be possibly unnoticed. But above that even, I think it should be a case by case basis. Obviously, if it was clear, i.e. the person stopped working in 2015 but the cheques continued, there’s no question it has to be recovered. But even then, there may be grounds to write off some of it or all of it for some cases or have a fairly generous repayment schedule.
Even though not all employees are directly affected by their pay, I think there should be compensation for all. While a strong prioritization on backlogs to fix the issue is a legally defensible position, and a good mitigation strategy for future litigation and grievances, bad progress on all the categories is not.
Many of us have been directly affected — ignoring basic delays, there are probably 15-20% who have been incrementally more affected by Phoenix than they would have been by its predecessor. Another 40% have had administrative glitches. That puts you easily over half.
But in addition to those directly affected, I know people who have not taken acting assignments to avoid risking a Phoenix problem (myself included).
People who have tried to juggle dual parental leaves with their spouse while contingency planning if that might trigger a Phoenix problem for one or both of them.
People who have postponed Leave with Income Averaging.
And even a couple of people who are incredibly risk-averse who hoped that if they sat in their current box for a couple of years until Phoenix was fixed, they wouldn’t be affected, and thus wouldn’t change jobs or compete for promotions.
Another was stressed because they were trying to buy a house and the info proving their income was wrong in Phoenix and it was affecting their approvals.
So all of us have had increased stress, we have all been affected in some way. And there is no doubt that legally, all employees are going to have to be compensated for that somehow. I suspect it will be a Phoenix bonus in the next contract renewal. It might take a class-action grievance of some sort to get it, but there will be something. Some idiots will argue it should be $20K or more. No, it will likely be about $2K, maybe only $1500, and it will be before tax. It’s about the best you can hope for in labour law.
Because in the end, everyone will already have been made whole. So no outstanding monies. Hardly enough to compensate for the fiasco due to bad planning, not an IT system. And that will be the truly unacceptable part.