Feds cross ‘milestone’ in clearing Phoenix pay backlog

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Government officials say they've turned the corner in trying to fix the troubled Phoenix civil service pay system.

But Public Services and Procurement Canada deputy minister Marie Lemay says it's still going to take months to deal with pay issues affecting thousands of employees who've been underpaid or overpaid since the system was introduced a little over a year ago.

Some 7,000 federal workers in a backlog of cases that once stood at around 82,000 are still facing pay issues.

Lemay said she expects that backlog to shrink significantly in the coming weeks as her department grapples with priority cases, such as those who've been improperly paid while on parental or disability leave, or while working temporarily in higher-paid roles.

The deputy minister noted that there have been improvements in the government's self-imposed service standard for dealing with new pay change requests.

In particular, about 43 per cent of new transactions for disability leave are now being processed within what the government considers an acceptable amount of time – 20 business days – compared with just 22 per cent of cases last month.

Many workers have expressed frustration at not being paid, sometimes for months, while on parental leave and the unions representing those workers have asked the government to make disability and parental leave payments a priority.

Lemay said Wednesday she expects the vast majority of those files will meet the service standard by the end of this month or early April at the latest.

For parental leave cases, the percentage of cases meeting expectations actually dropped, to 19 per cent dealt with on time compared with 22 per cent in February.

"As much as I see today some good signs ... I say all that, but we still have a very long road ahead for people that have been waiting so long," Lemay told a news briefing.

"Their issues are not going to be resolved tomorrow for a lot of them."

Overall, the government has finally begun processing more transactions than it's receiving, she said.

"This is a very important milestone. It means that both the wait times and the overall number of pay requests awaiting processing will decrease."

There are about 100,000 government employees who are waiting to be paid top-ups for working in higher, so-called "acting" positions, said Lemay.

The government said it's been able to properly pay just nine per cent of civil servants who fall into that category, under a service standard of 30 business days, up from seven per cent last month.

Lemay said her department is hoping to have that cohort's pay issues resolved some time this spring.

The country's biggest public service unions have asked the government to set up a $75-million fund to help fix the system, saying they see no end in sight to the pay problems.

They want Finance Minister Bill Morneau to include the money in his March 22 budget, so departments can hire more human-resources staff to resolve individual cases and train information-technology staff to build Phoenix-related expertise within the public service.

Lemay also expressed surprise Wednesday at the number of civil servants who have come forward in recent days indicating they were unaware that they can apply for emergency pay to make up for any shortfall.