Phoenix rises from the ashes
September 14, 2016 7:24 PM   Subscribe

Did the Canadian government break the law? Known as the Phoenix fiasco, the Canadian government's efforts to modernize its payroll system has caused further stress on a public service already transitioning to a newly elected government while undergoing collective bargaining. The minister responsible reported 80,000 cases of payroll errors, including employees being underpaid, overpaid, or not paid at all. Privacy breaches have been reported. The CBC has been providing stories from some of the affected public servants.

Pay Centre employees in Miramichi are "beleaguered". Advice to public servants includes police involvement. The workplace charitable campaign is at risk because donations are processed through the new payroll system.

Maybe only Rambo can fix it.

A senior executive from the responsible department blamed a lack of mandatory training in a tribunal hearing today. One of the largest unions is unimpressed.

(this is my first post! I am a public servant who was directly affected by this centralized payroll system.)
posted by maggiemae (32 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I've been reading the trickle of coverage about this. It sounds like a colossal disaster. There's no way for them to even easily transition back to the old payroll system since most of the staff involved in managing it were let go.

I hope you weren't too badly affected by this, maggiemae.
posted by figurant at 9:06 PM on September 14, 2016

This thing is crazy. There are people who haven't been paid in months, and it's unclear if there's an end in sight (despite promises). My girlfriend works for the government of Canada and is minorly affected, but there are others who are just basically out of money, e.g. a summer employee who (last I heard) has yet to see a paycheck and has had to take on credit card debt to get by. It's unfathomable to me that it could be allowed to go on for so long -- there could be people who haven't been paid in 6 months or longer by the end of it, even if they meet the current promises!
posted by advil at 10:10 PM on September 14, 2016

If you google "failed erp project millions" or even billions, you will find many, many relevant results. Personally, I've always found this slightly terrifying. Like most of you I count on being paid on a regular basis (even if I'm not living paycheck to paycheck). But most of the time it seems these cases just get written off as some sort of business loss. You never hear about employees not getting paid, but that seems to me the natural result of a payroll systems failure. To hear of this happening on the scale of the Canadian government just confirms some of my fears.
posted by timelord at 10:38 PM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just found some thoughts on why this is happening:

"Before Phoenix, if human resources staff didn't input data into the system in a timely or accurate matter, it didn't affect employees pay. Di Paola says a separate department would duplicate that work and enter the information into its payroll system for workers to get their pay cheques.

The biggest change with Phoenix is that HR and payroll are now integrated. HR staff must input the data, it flows into Pheonix, and Phoenix pays it out, explained Di Paola.

but there are

"widespread “technological system glitches” within Phoenix that “basically cause Phoenix to spit out a wrong answer.”

When the information is being input into Phoenix, it’s simply giving the wrong number – it’s not computing properly,” he said. “It’s like…putting into your calculator 5 + 5 and the calculator does it and the answer is 4.”

And training was optional, because the specialist making recommendations to HR didn't "have the authority" to mandate it; department heads decided web-based modules were enough for most payroll staff. And there was a massive backlog, to start with.

Someone in the comments asked why there aren't people working on this 24/7 until it's fixed, and really, why aren't there?

(Looks like people will be able to make claims, but only if receipts are kept - I have a feeling that process won't go down amazingly smoothly, either - and not for "missed opportunities" like someone's kids not being able to go to summer camp.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:56 PM on September 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Peoplesoft, huh? That would've been my third guess, after IBM and SAS…
posted by Pinback at 11:02 PM on September 14, 2016 [10 favorites]

Looks like people will be able to make claims, but only if receipts are kept--cotton dress sock

Sounds like a Mr Robot episode.

They had several thousand trained compensation advisors replaced with 590 undertrained employees working on Phoenix, who now have to deal not only with the issues that 1000s of employees handled before, but also having to clean up all the messes the new system has created. Not surprisingly, 50 of them have left on long term stress leave.

Pinback, your first guess is right: it's IBM.
posted by eye of newt at 11:12 PM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I want to start hearing the words "ministerial responsibility".
posted by mikek at 11:29 PM on September 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am so angry about this, and. I think they should have started issuing manual cheques after three weeks.

Seriously... was there no test run son a small department?

It is certainly a violation of employment standards in BC to fail to pay employees within 8 days of the end of the pay period, and pay must be issued twice per week.

I hope every person affected files claim with their provincial ministry of labour/ employment standards. And a group grievance should result in compensation... regardless of receipts, my goodness... but certainly late penalties and interest.

For overpayment, the employer could also be on the hook.

This is failed state stuff, and it is incredibly shocking. I hope it's top of question period every day.
posted by chapps at 1:01 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I mean, if this were my business, and I hadn't paid my staff, a lien could be put on my property to fund pay owed... with interest.

I have no idea what this would look like in this case... Banff national park becomes collectively owned asset of federal staff?
posted by chapps at 1:10 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

My understanding is also that they required everyone in payroll to move to Miramichi when they rolled out Phoenix, so all the long-term employees, who understood how to code person A who was part of department B and seconded to department C and out on short term disability said "No thanks" and they lost all their institutional knowledge. (And also that payroll was incorrect before, only a bit less obviously incorrect.)

It is a true bipartisan clusterfuck.
posted by jeather at 1:46 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

And as more and more organizations use these giant ERPs to streamline processes and create "efficiencies", we're at the mercy of a managerial class who has little or no understanding of the IT functions or the technology involved. I've watched us learn to deal with Peoplesoft over the last 15 years or so - we were almost totally unprepared to make the kind of decisions required to implement such a grand scheme, and the people in charge at the beginning were non-IT management and made a complete dog's breakfast of it. Fortunately, the payroll people worked their asses off to make it happen.
posted by sneebler at 1:48 AM on September 15, 2016 [7 favorites]

Damn. How are there not massive lawsuits over this already? There should be. This shit is fucking up people's lives, and it's totally inexcusable. People need to be paid for their work, period. That's the fundamental employment contract: Ingive you some of my time, you give me some of your money. For that matter, in addition to lawsuits how is it that there isn't a massive strike going on? People must be pissed. I know I would be.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:08 AM on September 15, 2016

I work for the government here in Ottawa and while I haven't had any pay problems it's because my pay hasn't changed in several years. Every year I typically donate to the GCWCC (Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign) via payroll deduction, but I'm not touching that this year. Not a chance I'm giving them a reason to screw with my cheque. I'll make a lump sum credit card payment instead.
posted by aclevername at 4:43 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm a public servant in Ottawa, too, and in my small team of five people, three have Phoenix issues, mostly relating to having been promoted and still receiving their old pay rates. But at least they're getting paid! Other teams had students over the summer who, effectively, completed un-paid internships over the summer and had to ask their schools for tuition deferments because they didn't know when Phoenix would finally cough up their pay.

I am transferring to a new department on Monday, at a higher rate of pay, and I'm terrified that Phoenix will throw a wobbly and decide that I should get nothing. There's basically no trust anymore from any of my colleagues that they are being paid correctly, or that they can rely on their HR and compensation team. It's a real mess and I'm not sure how the government can regain that trust.
posted by deadtrouble at 5:18 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Someone in the comments asked why there aren't people working on this 24/7 until it's fixed, and really, why aren't there?

Because the government can't pay the overtime.
posted by plep at 5:19 AM on September 15, 2016 [7 favorites]

maybe all MP pay should be stopped until this is fixed.
posted by jb at 5:43 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

“It’s like…putting into your calculator 5 + 5 and the calculator does it and the answer is 4.”

Math people, help me out. That's wrong, isn't it?
posted by beerperson at 5:47 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

And as more and more organizations use these giant ERPs to streamline processes and create "efficiencies", we're at the mercy of a managerial class who has little or no understanding of the IT functions or the technology involved.

This is exactly it.

Basically, higher ups think that staff are stupid and that our jobs are easy. Many of them have never had a working class job as an adult. So they think not only that any old computer system can replace us, but that there isn't even any need to consult us as new processes are designed. What's more, they assume that a little video of powerpoint slides will clearly convey what needs to be done - because after all, the only things that need to be done are so easy that a second grader could do them, right?

Over the past eight years, we've had two roll-outs of new systems via PeopleSoft. The first one was difficult, but they'd invested in training. The system was not designed for the kind of oversight of transactions that a university is required by law to conduct, so we had to have all kinds of extra-system kludges. The second roll-out was trainingless and a very important process was entirely disrupted because old procedures were totally abandoned and not replaced.

It's very demoralizing.

I do think that the whole "oh, we'll just pay you whenever" thing happens because labor is weaker and weaker - if we had militant 1970s unions (and the social conditions that produced them, of course - this isn't some kind of moral failure) and everyone downed tools, this stuff would be resolved a lot faster.
posted by Frowner at 6:06 AM on September 15, 2016 [13 favorites]

I wonder which Honourable ({/}) Member for Miramichi was responsible for this colossal screw-up? Canada's done this before: there's one federal centre in some tiny town in Alberta that was championed by the local MP and ended up with millions of investment.

I guess they're doing the best they can in that real backwater's backwater, Miramichi. It can't be easy processing all those payments over dial-up.
posted by scruss at 6:09 AM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have family who work in the Federal civil service. Everyone who works a regular 8 hour day? Fine. Pay comes as usual. The more unusual stuff there is about your employment, be it a fixed term of employment, part time work, co-op, or any other deviation from the norm, the more likely it was that things went badly wrong for you.

Now, I don't have firsthand knowledge of Phoenix's implementation, but from what little I know of development, that kind of suggests "We didn't test this enough before flipping the switch". Oh, and guess what: Phoenix managers' performance pay tied to timely payroll system roll-out. That couldn't create any incentives to just cross your fingers and hope to deal with the bugs as they come, now could it?

This is also par for the course for the past government. They decided to migrate all Government of Canada IT functions to a single entity. Unfortunately That entity couldn't find a way to pay the RCMP's phone bills. and is now (somewhat predictably) over budget. It's been described by the Auditor General as an exercise in sloppiness.
posted by Grimgrin at 6:09 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

From what I understand, Phoenix is in Miramichi because the Long-Gun Registry was there and the Harper government threw them a bone when they shut that down.
posted by lumberbaron at 6:26 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seriously... was there no test run on a small department?

There was. The government went ahead with the second phase of the roll-out (to the rest of the federal government) in April despite "pleas from the employees at the New Brunswick pay centre to delay it."
posted by heatherlogan at 6:33 AM on September 15, 2016 [5 favorites]

Because the government can't pay the overtime.

Wouldn't it still be cheaper than a massive lawsuit (and loss of confidence)? Oh, ha, you mean they literally can't pay it. Good point.
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:46 AM on September 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

They literally can't pay it, not through Phoenix.

In my little group of dozen or so, we've got around 15 affected, including myself. Some of my students were being severely underpaid (like 10% salary) and were some of the top priority fixes, though it's not yet clear if they all got completely fixed prior to their departure on the 31st of last month. We're quite anxious for the new ones too and for a new term that started Sept 1. The first pay period has come for them and it's not clear everyone was paid right yet, so even new entries appear to be having problems.

Meanwhile we have regular staff who keep a pager on a rota, have done a massive amount of overtime in the past two months (in reaction to an event we're no question mandated to do something about). Many are in acting positions too. With extra-duty pay (on-call and overtime) and the acting pay and, at least in one case, the bilingual bonuses not begin paid, we have half-a-dozen staff who are owed more than the price of a new car, with no relief in sight. Fortunately they're all getting their substantive grade paycheques, so they can keep body and soul together, but that also means that they're all end of the queue in terms of fixes.

And the concern now is that the queue is growing faster than it's shrinking. The official word is that there are 80k fixes needed in the system now, but apparently that's as of end of July. We've been briefed by our HR that the true number of tickets is well over 120k right now and growing as people who have delayed reporting---mostly out of good will, hoping that the most urgent cases will get fixed first---are now doing so. The number of tickets in the system, btw, is per change required, not per employee. I have around 6 tickets in for my own pay (I don't know the exact number because they do not even acknowledge receipt of a ticket so I have no way of knowing how many they actually have for me), and likely actually need a bunch more.

It's an utter mess. Official word is that it will be fixed by the end of next month, but absolutely no one believes that. Certainly, in our case, at least some of the basic paperwork wasn't done right and still isn't even in the system properly. Folks day to day are mostly ignoring it the best they can, but many are feeling the pinch. I'm worried that if this goes into the new year (as seems likely) that taxes are going to get drawn into this hairball too. The worst part of it is the people who designed and oversaw the rollout (and got bonuses and awards for it) are still in charge over at the pay centre.
posted by bonehead at 7:30 AM on September 15, 2016 [8 favorites]

I once worked for a state agency that had 81 different payroll systems.

The GoC number was 31 apparently. Not insane when you consider that this was for pretty much all of government, including the military. That's about 2 dozen big departments, perhaps 4 dozen independent offices and agencies (mini departments like Coast Guard, the Public Health Agency, and so on).
posted by bonehead at 7:39 AM on September 15, 2016

if we had militant 1970s unions

Around half of the government employees are represented by PSAC who are a very active union. Many of the rest of us are repped by a lazy bunch of pussy cats that let PSAC fight the fights and then says "me too" to whatever their settlement was. There is lots of activity going on in the background right now. The union isn't being hugely public or pushing hard at the moment, because the consensus is that would not do much to help people get paid right now.

I think we're very likely to see years of lawsuits in the future though. This is the same union that (successfully) took the government all the way to the Supreme Court to get equal pay for equal work settlements for all the female employees in the service in the 2000s, and were, in part, essential in the forcing the Government into making pay equity a national law. That took a decade or more though. But the fight over this hasn't even really started yet, I think.
posted by bonehead at 7:52 AM on September 15, 2016 [10 favorites]

I programmed enterprise systems for 10+ years. And lemme tell you, institutional knowledge is pretty much THE most important thing.

If you want to phase out those workers (I'd argue the risk of doing so heavily outweighs the 'cost savings', why can't they just be moved to another department and retrained?), you better do it extremely gradually, over yeaars. Because it's over years that horrible, crazy scenarios surface, that only John and Janet have had to deal with, and on an ad-hoc basis, and just never told anyone.

Never trust any consultant who has no skin in the game and whose bonus is tied to having you 'sign off'. Even if they remark how their cutting edge win-win deep learning distributed AI powered e-solution is more a Shelbyville idea.
posted by eurasian at 8:34 AM on September 15, 2016 [9 favorites]

The service is also dealing with an aging out problem. Many of them were simply offered early buyouts and have retired. It's been a real issue in bringing even those they've rehired back on a temporary basis. Many didn't want the hassle.
posted by bonehead at 8:36 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Why would they want the hassle? Some of them didn't get their early retirement buyouts, and they quite reasonably do not trust that if they started working again that they would get paid.
posted by jeather at 8:43 AM on September 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Is it just me, or is it an increasingly common IT rollout scenario that sees a decades-old system that can eventually be coaxed into doing its job replaced with a shiny new system that just doesn't work, despite the vendor's promises, when the cutover point arrives?

There's a system I work with that breaks in various ways for no apparent reason, has a nonsensical user interface, and coughs up random unintelligible errors on users' screens on a daily basis, and I utterly dread whatever the powers that be decide to replace it with, despite not knowing yet what that is.

I hope every person affected files claim with their provincial ministry of labour/ employment standards.

Federal civil servants' pay is exclusively under federal jurisdiction. Provincial governments can't do anything about this.
posted by the road and the damned at 9:29 AM on September 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

The only redress available is suing the government directly, in my understanding.
posted by bonehead at 9:36 AM on September 15, 2016

They should have launched this system and had the existing compensation people at the departmental level trained on it and still performing their own department's compensation transactions, in order to work out the bugs, and THEN transitioned to a centralized staff once the problems were worked out. I can't figure out why they decided to just wholesalely transition departments to Miramichi all at once (oh wait I can: pressure from a government who didn't care about reality, but just cared about saving money; see also: Shared Services Canada and the email transformation, which my department has had bumped back several times, and now almost two years past our original transition date...).

I'm another one who won't be donating to GCWCC this year through payroll deductions, both because I don't want them messing with my pay and because I don't want to take the spot in the queue of a colleague somewhere out there who isn't getting paid at all.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:42 PM on September 15, 2016

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