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PIPSC president Debi Daviau looks on as PSAC president Chris Aylward speaks about the Phoenix pay system during a news conference about pay equity in Ottawa, on Oct. 31, 2018.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The upcoming federal budget must include more money to stabilize the disastrous Phoenix pay system for government employees, and to launch its replacement, the country’s biggest civil service unions demanded Monday.

Unless cash is earmarked this spring for a new system to pay federal employees, the tens of thousands of workers affected by the current system’s problems could be left in limbo for month, or even years, the head of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada warned.

“You need the money to test and implement and maintain a new system,” said PIPSC national president Debi Daviau.

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“I don’t know how it will be possible to replace the system if there isn’t adequate funding in the upcoming budget.”

Civil servants this month are marking three years since the initial rollout of Phoenix, which resulted in more than half of federal employees being overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.

The government has slowly whittled away at the massive backlog of pay issues that resulted from Phoenix, but it was still dealing with at least 275,000 unresolved transactions as of Jan. 23, according to the public service pay centre’s most recent information dashboard.

Internal documents suggest it could take a decade or more to fully stabilize Phoenix.

“Internal projections put clearing the backlog at least 3-5 years away and overall stability and pay reconciliation towards a 10 year horizon,” said a briefing note prepared in August 2018 for a deputy minister with Employment and Social Development Canada.

The document was obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act.

Daviau said the government appears to be on a “fast track” toward finding a new system to replace Phoenix, having trimmed the list of prospective vendors down to three.

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A working group led by the government’s chief information officer, Alex Benay, is expected to provide the government with new pay system options by spring.

Earlier this month, public servants were invited to test run three of those software options provided by Ceridian, Workday and SAP.

But with the House of Commons set to rise before summer, and voters heading to the polls in October, civil servants will be confronted with a new delay – a government stalled by campaigning.

“Phoenix’s replacement must be guaranteed the adequate funding now before the upcoming election,” Daviau told a news conference Monday.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, the biggest union representing federal employees, was skeptical about whether the government can launch a new pay system as it slowly works to stabilize the old one.

A big problem standing in the way is the data – much of it inaccurate – used to determine how civil servants should be paid, not to mention the ongoing slowness of entering new pay information into the system, said PSAC national president Chris Aylward.

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“You can’t go out and implement a new pay system when the system that you currently have has garbage information in it,” said Aylward.

“(There is) garbage in the old system. You put the same garbage in the new system and you’re going to get the same garbage output.”

The unions said data from Phoenix must be stabilized so it can be easily transferred to a new system that recognizes the complexity of the federal pay structure.

Daviau said progress has been made in talks aimed at compensating government employees for hardships endured as a result of the pay problems, although Aylward said the government has not moved fast enough for his members’ liking.

PSAC and PIPSC said they expect all of their members to be compensated and indicated they were open to different forms of restitution depending on how directly or indirectly government employees have been impacted.

The Phoenix system was launched three years ago across a limited number of government departments with the goal of streamlining what had become a cumbersome, out-of-date structure. It was also supposed to save taxpayers $70 million annually by eliminating the jobs of thousands of pay advisers.

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However, the combined cost of implementing the system and subsequently trying to stabilize it is now estimated to exceed $1 billion.

The unions are holding events this week to pressure the government to take more concrete action to reduce the Phoenix pay backlog. PSAC plans to hold a rally Thursday in the National Capital region to kick off a series of escalating actions across the country.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau will unveil the government’s pre-election fiscal blueprint on March 19.

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