OTTAWA — The federal government could soon revert to using multiple pay systems to replace the Phoenix system it adopted more than three years ago in a costly, failed attempt to streamline how it pays its employees.
The government announced Wednesday that it had formally picked three vendors to experiment in the coming months with possible replacements for Phoenix, which has cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars since it went live more than three years ago.
Treasury Board President Joyce Murray said Ceridian, SAP and Workday will develop and test human-resources and pay-system pilot projects — and that more than one of them could ultimately be awarded contracts to build human-resources and pay systems for the government's 300,000 workers.
More than half of those employees have been — and continue to be — directly affected by problems with the Phoenix system, being overpaid, underpaid or not paid at all.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has in the past, Murray blamed the previous Conservative government for handing the Liberals a pay system that was "doomed from the start."
"There was no pilot testing (of Phoenix) when it was rolled out," Murray told reporters.
The Conservatives have maintained that, while they signed onto Phoenix prior to the last election, it was a Liberal government decision to launch it before it was properly tested.
For several months, the government has been working with pay-system suppliers to see which one could replace Phoenix.
The three approved vendors will spend until the end of this year building and testing pilot systems, using real-time data from government departments, to prove their systems can properly incorporate the myriad, complex rules that govern how civil servants are paid.
Murray said it is possible that more than one of the vendors could be chosen.
At least one civil-service union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, supported such a move.
"All we ever wanted out of this is a working pay system and if that's working pay systems, we're OK with that, too," said PIPSC president Debi Daviau, whose organization has been working with the government to find a replacement for Phoenix.
"I think there's actually some opportunities that we would be missing if the government were to say we're limiting ourself to one choice at this point."
Daviau said some departments are already running their own pay software that, should it be adapted or expanded, could meet the pay needs of other departments.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada, by far the largest federal civil-service union in the country with about 140,000 members, expressed disappointment in the announcement, saying it brings federal employees no closer than they were a year ago to being paid properly.
"To me (the announcement) was a simple photo op and a little bit of election campaigning going on," said PSAC national president Chris Aylward.
While the government has slowly whittled down the number of pay errors it's been dealing with, the government pay centre was still dealing with a backlog of pay cases totalling 239,000 at the end of last month.
The Harper Conservatives projected the Phoenix system would save taxpayers $70 million annually by streamlining the government's multiple, antiquated pay programs.
Shortly after it was launched in early 2016, however, serious shortcomings in the system created massive problems across dozens of government departments.
The cost of stabilizing Phoenix — and searching for a replacement system — is now estimated to have surpassed $1.1 billion.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer has also projected overall costs could rise to $2.6 billion by the time Phoenix is eventually shut down, which could take four years.
Heading toward a fall election, the Trudeau Liberals have been wary of putting an overall price cap on fixing the pay problem, nor are they any longer predicting how long it will take.