Employers asked to consider work-from-home arrangement

A HOUSE leader yesterday called anew on employers to consider telecommuting or the stay-at-home work arrangement for their employees after the number of confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in the country doubled to six people over the weekend, including the first case of local transmission that prompted President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte to declare a state of public health emergency.

“The President’s declaration of a state of public health emergency is timely for the government to ensure the swift deployment of resources to contain the spread of COVID-19, especially now that the Department of Health (DOH) has confirmed three more infections in the country, including the first case of a local transmission," said Deputy Speaker and Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte.

Villafuerte said the Employers Confederation of the Philippines (ECOP) and other company bosses should adopt telecommuting whenever possible, as the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) itself has “encouraged” working at home to reduce the chances for COVID-19 infection among workers.

“With the President declaring a state of public health emergency and the Department of Health (DOH) raising its COVID-19 alert level to Code Red, employers could do their part in helping break the chain of local transmission by adopting, if and when possible, telecommuting for their workers,” Villafuerte said.  

“Allowing our people to do their jobs in the safety of their homes would go a long way in helping prevent the spread of this virus among our workers,” he said.  

With the sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in South Korea and Japan, he said authorities in these Asian countries have either adopted or pushed the adoption of telecommuting or work-at-home arrangement for workers to stop the further spread of the virus.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said last week that while COVID-19 appears to have peaked already in China, the risk exists that it could grow into a pandemic. It had also raised its global risk assessment to its maximum level from "high" to "very high."  

The Department of Tourism (DOT) has cancelled at the last minute the month-long Philippine Shopping Festival this March to protect public health amid the rise in infections and deaths outside China.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III was quoted by the media last Saturday as saying that working from home is now “encouraged” to reduce the chances for infection among workers, but he added, “It should be an arrangement between the employer and employee ... May consensus dapat. Walang sapilitan ‘yan.”

Sen. Christopher Go said, meanwhile, that the President “has agreed” to declare a state of public health emergency after the Department of Heath (DOH) confirmed over the weekend three more COVID-19 infections, including a 62-year-old Filipino with no history of international travel and who had frequented the prayer room for Muslims at the Greenhills shopping center in San Juan City.  

The sixth person found positive for the virus by the DOH was this man’s wife while the fourth one was the Deloitte employee at the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig City who travelled to Japan last month.

Villafuerte noted that the WHO gave its highest risk assessment in February following the sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in South Korea, Italy and Iran, and its spread in just a week's time to new countries like Afghanistan, Algeria, Austria, Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, Denmark, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Iraq, Kuwait, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, North Macedonia, Norway, Pakistan, Oman, Romania, San Marino and Switzerland.

In its weekend official tally, the WHO listed 101,927 confirmed cases of this coronavirus strain—80,813 in China and 21,110 in 92 other countries and territories. It reported 3,073 deaths in China and 413 deaths in the rest of the world, including one in the Philippines.

Citing reports, Villafuerte said some South Korean workers in companies like Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motors and the SK Group were made to stay home or work remotely as a precautionary measure, while Tokyo’s Cabinet last month approved a plan to recommend telecommuting and staggered work shifts to companies to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Our companies can consider work-at-home arrangements in support of Republic Act (RA) No. 11164 or the Telecommuting Act, which I had authored,” he said. “One of my proposals included in RA 11164 is the fair treatment that should be accorded telecommuting employees in terms of pay rates, right to rest periods and holidays, equivalent workload and same access to training and career development.”

Villafuerte earlier pitched this work-at-home arrangement, as provided for in RA 11165, following a report quoting DOLE Assistant Secretary Dominique Tutay as saying that her office was preparing proposed interventions for workers who might be displaced as a result of the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 contagion.

Tutay said affected employers could consider allowing their workers to avail of their leave of absence credits or whatever suitable arrangements are feasible for the short term.

The ECOP, meanwhile, issued an advisory last month calling on its member-firms to implement measures to prevent and control COVID-19 and exercise “flexibility” in adopting work arrangements and the grant of official leaves with or  without pay.  

“We now have this opportunity for employers to support RA 11165 while at the same time help the national government fight the global viral outbreak by letting their workers, if possible, to work in the safety of their homes until this global emergency situation subsides, with the use of their computers and other telecommunication technologies,” said Villafuerte, who was the principal author of RA 11165 in the House of Representatives.

RA 11165 states that “an employer in the private sector may offer a telecommuting program to its employees on a voluntary basis, and upon such terms and conditions as they mutually agree upon provided that such terms and conditions shall not be less than the minimum labor standards set by the law, and shall include compensable work hours, minimum number of work hours, overtime, rest days, and entitlement to leave benefits.”

Among Villafuerte's proposals  included in RA 11165 were the  "fair treatment" provisions, which ensures that telecommuting employees are given the same treatment as that of employees working at the office in terms of rate of pay, right to rest periods, regular holidays, and special non-working days, same  or equivalent workload, same access to training and career development opportunities, appropriate training on the technical equipment, and collective rights as the workers at the employer’s premises.