“It makes you feel pretty helpless, being 300 or 400 miles offshore when I have poor communications, and my wife is at home worried,” Mr. Ryan said. “It was an awful lot of worry and strain.”
Unwelcome payday surprises like Mr. Ryan’s have troubled the Canadian public service since February, when the government switched to the new payroll system, known as Phoenix, and laid off about 2,700 payroll clerks who were no longer supposed to be needed.
The government has promised that Phoenix, which covers about 300,000 civilian government workers, will be “stabilized” soon. But workers and their unions are skeptical, and the government has put off extending Phoenix to cover the military and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a change that was supposed to happen on Nov. 1.
Every imaginable kind of pay problem appears to have cropped up, affecting every kind of employee, even some political aides to cabinet ministers. Some workers have been underpaid and others overpaid. Miscalculated deductions have left some workers with pay deposits that were not much more than pocket change. And some, like Mr. Ryan, were simply dropped from the payroll in error.
Managers in some government departments found themselves lending their own money to subordinates to cover basic needs like groceries. Merchants in small cities where the government is a major employer have seen their sales slump. When a temporary system was set up to give emergency pay to affected workers, Phoenix sometimes immediately took back what the system gave. And a number of people with skills in high demand, like nurses, have quit the government to work for employers with functioning payroll systems.
Many of the employees who were hired to operate the Phoenix system became so stressed by the flood of complaints that they took sick leave, leaving their office in Miramichi, New Brunswick, even harder pressed to cope.
“Every single payday, we get calls from our members,” said Chris Aylward, the national executive vice president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, a labor union. “When you’ve got the government of Canada not able to pay its employees on time, it is a national disgrace.”
Even Mr. Aylward acknowledged that Canada needed a new system to replace the 40-year-old patchwork of software that the government had been using to manage its payroll of 20 billion Canadian dollars a year (about $ 15 billion in United States currency). In 2009, the previous government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative, hired IBM Canada to create a replacement based on PeopleSoft, a software system made by Oracle that is widely used by corporations and institutions to manage operations, finances and employees.
What went wrong after that is a matter of debate, but probably involved a combination of blunders, poor planning and some wishful thinking. Judy M. Foote, who inherited Phoenix when she was named minister of public services and procurement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year, has asked the country’s auditor general for a post-mortem.
Everyone agrees that the job was not easy. Though many government employees work in 9-to-5 office jobs, the public payroll also includes a wide array of people like Mr. Ryan with complicated work schedules and pay rules. The government estimates that its 27 collective agreements with 15 unions, as well as its own policies, have led to more than 80,000 rules governing wages and salaries.
Debi Daviau, the president of another union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, is also a computer systems analyst who had private-sector experience before going to work for the government. She faults the government for turning to an outside contractor, IBM, to create the new payroll system, rather than relying on its own software developers.
Once that choice was made, she said, the Harper government put so much emphasis on saving money that it undermined efforts to ensure that the system would function well.
“When they say IBM is adhering to the terms of the contract, it’s true,” Ms. Daviau said. “The government just didn’t scope out the contract properly.”
At a parliamentary committee hearing in September, Ms. Foote said the Conservatives had skimped on training for the 500 workers hired to run Phoenix, “versus actually buying into what IBM had advocated as the amount of training that really needed to take place.”
While the Conservatives have avoided answering direct questions about their role in the system, they have repeatedly criticized the Liberal government of, in their view, bungling what they started.
“Blaming the previous government is like taking home a nice steak from the butcher and then burning it and blaming the butcher,” Kelly McCauley, the member of Parliament who is the Conservative spokesman on the issue, said at the September hearing.
The potential for trouble was apparent early on. In May 2015, when the Conservatives still held power, IBM recommended pushing back the planned start-up of Phoenix at the end of that year. It was postponed until February, but the government went ahead with layoffs of the payroll clerks anyway, making it impossible to keep the old system operating as a backup in case of teething trouble with Phoenix.
Phoenix’s problems are far from being untangled, and new issues keep appearing. But the government has managed to reduce the number of employees who have pay problems by nearly half, in part by rehiring some of the laid-off payroll clerks to help out. After a fitful start, an emergency pay system appears to have ended the need for managers to dip into their own bank accounts to help employees.
But instead of saving the government 70 million Canadian dollars this year, as promised, Phoenix has cost the government an extra $ 50 million (about $ 37 million in United States currency), including $ 6 million in additional fees paid to IBM to fix it.
In a statement, IBM Canada said that it “continues to work in close partnership with the government” to make Phoenix work properly and that “the remaining issues are primarily nontechnical — the system is operating as designed, and the vast majority of the issues are process- and data-related.”
Still, Phoenix continues to baffle some of those it was supposed to pay. Neil Colbourne is an example.
He worked at government nursing stations in remote indigenous reserves in northern Ontario until April, when he quit to take a hospital job in his native Newfoundland. At the time he left, he was owed about $ 4,000 in back pay because of Phoenix problems.
He tried for months to collect it, grappling with chronic busy signals at call centers. When he did get through, his calls were often answered by newly hired clerks who could not help him because they lacked the security clearances required to gain access to his files.
In September, the government finally paid up. But even though it no longer owes him a dime, the Phoenix system hasn’t forgotten Mr. Colbourne.
“I’m still getting a biweekly pay stub,” he said.