OTTAWA — The federal government failed its employees when it didn't properly heed warning signs about its problem-plagued Phoenix pay system before rolling it out almost a year ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau admitted Thursday.
"I'll admit it," Trudeau told a frustrated civil servant as he fielded questions from the public during the first major event of a cross-Canada whistle-stop tour in Kingston, Ont.
"This government ... didn't pay enough attention to the challenges and the warning signs on the transition we were overseeing."
Added the prime minister: "We are working extremely hard to fix this."
Earlier Thursday, the union that represents federal scientists and other professionals urged the government to set up a separate pay system for those workers shortchanged by the ongoing problems with Phoenix.
Civil servants have run out of patience and the government needs to introduce a temporary system to ease the burden on those most affected by the debacle, said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
"Our members have waited far too long, and we've heard far too many horror stories," Daviau told a news conference in Ottawa.
"Employees who are struggling with substantially reduced pay — or no pay at all — should be paid through a separate but parallel system until the problems with Phoenix are fixed and they can be reintegrated into the system."
The government has said it continues to struggle with a backlog of about 8,000 cases of employees who have received either too much or too little supplemental pay such as overtime — a number Trudeau called "8,000 too many."
The backlog at one point midway through 2016 reached roughly 82,000 cases, including at the time several hundred employees who had received no pay at all — in some cases for months.
In providing its latest update on the pay problems this week, Public Services and Procurement Canada stopped offering a timetable for when the system would be fully repaired.
The deputy minister in charge of dealing with the system's failures also predicted that it's unlikely any single person will be held accountable for the pay system problems.
"Somebody needs to go to jail," one woman told Trudeau in Kingston. The prime minister didn't directly respond to the statement, but instead repeated that his government would redouble efforts to fix the system.
Public Services Minister Judy Foote also didn't respond directly to the union's call for a parallel, temporary pay system, saying only that the government welcomed the proposals. Nor did she take full ownership of the debacle on behalf of the Liberal government, calling it an "inherited" problem.
"Every employee" can receive emergency salary advances for missing pay, Foote said in an email from her office. To date, 904 employees in her department have received 2,612 emergency salary advances, she added.
"Emergency salary advances are not recovered until an employee has received his or her regular salary as well as the full amount they were owed."
But only those who have not been paid at all qualify for the emergency paycheques, said Daviau. Employees who've been short-changed on overtime or other supplemental pay are falling between the cracks, she said.
The government also acknowledged Wednesday that, while it focuses on clearing the backlog, it has been unable to meet its 20-day standard deadline for new, incoming pay changes and requests, resulting in many employees waiting for up to three months to receive supplemental pay.
Follow @tpedwell on Twitter