07/20/2016 11:32 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 01:59 EDT

Trudeau Intervenes In Pay System Catastrophe That Hit Civil Servants

OTTAWA — The office that advises the prime minister and his cabinet on government operations is taking over efforts to fix the dysfunctional pay system that has short-changed tens of thousands of civil servants, Justin Trudeau said Wednesday.

The prime minister said it was unacceptable that a "troubling number'' of civil servants have not received paycheques as a result of problems with the Phoenix system.

"We are working right away on helping the most vulnerable while we make sure that the system functions for everyone,'' Trudeau said at a news conference in Gatineau, Que.

"And it's something I have engaged in personally and tasked the clerk of the Privy Council to oversee.''

Hundreds haven't been paid at all

It was revealed this week that more than 80,000 civil servants are impacted by the snafu. Among them are 720 people who haven't received paycheques at all, in some cases for months, forcing many to borrow money or max out credit cards to pay their bills.

Unions representing federal workers have demanded that those responsible for implementing the new pay system be held accountable for the breakdown, but the prime minister said sorting out whether anyone should face consequences is taking a back seat, for now, to ensuring people get paid.

justin trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question as he speaks with the media on Wednesday in Aylmer, Que. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"There will be time for 'lessons learned' down the road,'' said Trudeau.

"We're taking this very, very seriously and ensuring that people get the support and the pay that they are owed.''

What will also have to wait is sorting out whether government employees were out-of-pocket for credit card charges and other expenses directly linked to the pay problems.

"There will be time for 'lessons learned' down the road."

But anyone who incurred expenses that were no fault of their own should be reimbursed eventually, Public Services and Procurement Minister Judy Foote told The Canadian Press Tuesday.

Another glitch has breached privacy

The CBC also reported Tuesday that a glitch in the new Phoenix system has allowed widespread access to employees' personnel records, including social insurance numbers, citing documents obtained under the Access to Information Act.

That potential privacy breach could result in legal action against the government if anyone's private information was compromised, said Gilles LeVasseur at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

"If something is misused for whatever reason, and it's a leak that you have concealed or not properly dealt with, you're also liable for future consequences,'' he said.

"And that may bring, for example, a possible class-action if there's any damages that people may have suffered from that.''

Government officials were aware that the system might cause privacy breaches as early as January 2016, yet said in May it was secure, said the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

"That may bring, for example, a possible class-action if there's any damages that people may have suffered from that.''

"This is serious and unacceptable,'' PSAC national president Robyn Benson said in a statement.

"The private information of our members and all public service workers should not be in the hands of anyone who does not need it.''

The union, which represents the vast majority of Canada's 300,000 federal civil servants, called for a government hotline employees could use to find out what personal information was shared and how to protect their identities.

IBM, which designed the Phoenix program, would not comment about the system's problems Wednesday.

A spokeswoman said the company doesn't speak publicly about the specifics of its client agreements.

The auditor general and the privacy commissioner have both been asked to investigate how the pay system failed.

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