2 Supreme court unions, QC court seek 2-week halt in operations

Mike Navallo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 23 2021 11:27 AM | Updated as of Mar 23 2021 03:07 PM

2 Supreme court unions, QC court seek 2-week halt in operations 1
Employees wait for their turn to undergo rapid testing at the Supreme Court open grounds in Manila on May 26, 2020. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News/file

MANILA (UPDATE) — Two labor unions from the Supreme Court have asked the high court for a two-week work timeout while a Quezon City court asked to close the Hall of Justice buildings for 2 weeks due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

This comes as the Supreme Court scaled down operations of trial courts.

In a letter dated March 22 to Chief Justice Diosdado Peralta, Supreme Court Association of Lawyer Employees (SCALE) president Rene Enciso and Supreme Court Employees Association (SCEA) president Erwin Ocson asked for a work suspension from Wednesday, March 24, until Sunday, April 4. 

They cited an “upward trend of COVID-19 cases” in Metro Manila for the past 2 weeks with a daily average of more than 7,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the past three days. 

“This recent spike of numbers indicates that the virus remains as a public health threat in the country. Enclosed environment, like the workplace, has been identified as one of the places of contagion,” they said.

“Experts also projected that the current reproduction number of the virus may jump within the two-week period,” they added.

The high court had earlier suspended work at SC offices from March 11 to 14, later extending it to March 16, for disinfection after recording several confirmed COVID-19 cases.

It also implemented a 50% skeleton force from March 17 to 19.

But on March 19, Peralta extended the 50% skeleton force setup to March 26, upon the recommendation of Deputy Clerk of Court and Chief Administrative Officer Maria Carina Cunanan, who said that at that time there were already 33 confirmed COVID-19 cases among SC employees with 4 more waiting for their RT-PCR test results.

This came as the national government also placed Metro Manila and nearby provinces in a bubble for two weeks until April 4 to prevent further spread of the virus. 

For SCALE and SCEA, the work timeout is necessary “in the interest of the service and to ensure the good health and well-being of the Justices, Court officials and employees.”

The period for the 2-week work timeout will also coincide with the Manila City government’s granular lockdown to be implemented on March 24 to 27 in Barangay 669, the village which covers the Supreme Court area on Padre Faura. 

SCALE and SCEA also requested that a skeleton force of 50% be maintained once work resumes on April 5 until April 16, “subject to another extension if needed.”

A Supreme Court source said that the en banc has just decided for the “barest of personnel” to report this week, “only as need be and not to exceed 30%” only for the purpose of finishing urgent matters.

“SC is inclined to a suspension by next week,” the source said.

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QC RTC ASKING FOR 2-WEEK PHYSICAL CLOSURE OF BUILDINGS

Meanwhile, Quezon City Regional Trial Court Executive Judge Cecilyn Burgos-Villavert has asked Court Administrator Midas Marquez to physically close the main and annex buildings of the QC Hall of Justice from March 22 to April 4.

She revealed there were 9 confirmed COVID-19 cases among her personnel this month, calling the increase in infection “very alarming.” 

She also mentioned the “high risk of exposure” in the Hall of Justice buildings since Quezon City has recorded the most number of COVID-19 cases (49,951 as of March 18) among all cities in Metro Manila.

“Although we are observing proper health protocols in our workplace, the physical closure of the HOJ Buildings is necessary in order to slow down or eliminate the transmission of the virus within the buildings, to continuously disinfect and sanitize the premises, and to effectively protect the QC HOJ personnel, litigants and other court users and the general public from the virus,” she said in her March 19 letter.

Villavert assured Marquez they will continue operations through their official email addresses and contact numbers, videoconference hearings and work-from-home assignments.

No official word yet from the Office of the Court Administrator if her request was granted but according to a message circulating in the group chat of branch clerks of court of the Quezon City RTC, that request has been disapproved.

“The reason is that OCAD has not locked down any jurisdiction that has more infected personnel than Quezon City. We will still observe the 50% workforce,” according to a message shown to ABS-CBN News.

COURTS SCALE DOWN OPERATIONS

In a circular dated March 22, Marquez directed trial courts in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal to scale down its work force to between 30% to 50% from March 23 until March 31, following the resolution issued by the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 response. 

“Those who will not be in-court shall work from home and be subject to the submission of accomplishment reports,” he said.

Judges were encouraged to conduct videoconferencing hearings with a provision for judges to proceed to court for urgent matters requiring his/her personal presence.

The Supreme Court has allowed presiding judges of different courts to independently declare closure of their own salas.

Last week, the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases prompted the Court of Appeals and the Sandiganbayan to physically close their offices for disinfection and reduce their manpower.

The Department of Justice, meanwhile, went on lockdown but only until Tuesday.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevara said in a statement the DOJ would operate at 30% capacity on-site starting Wednesday until April 4 while the rest will continue to work from home. 

“The notable rise in COVID cases in the department has apparently slowed down,” he said.

GRANULAR LOCKDOWN

The Manila city government will, meanwhile, place Barangay 699, which covers the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and the Department of Justice, on granular lockdown from March 24, Wednesday, to March 27, Saturday.

But according to the Manila City Legal Office, these offices may still continue operating despite the granular lockdown as long as employees are able to show their government IDs. 

Guevarra earlier said national government offices rendering essential services are not covered by barangay lockdowns, unless these agencies themselves temporarily suspend onsite work for valid reasons with clearance from the Office of the President.