Contractual contact tracers in DOH COVID-19 surveillance unit unpaid for months

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 15 2020 07:52 PM

MANILA — Contractual employees under the Department of Health have not been receiving their salaries since they were hired to do contact tracing amid the COVID-19 pandemic 3 to 4 months ago. Some have contracts set to expire this month but have not yet received any compensation.

Marie (not her real name) told ABS-CBN News in an exclusive interview that they were hired in May and June to work for the DOH Epidemiology Bureau, which at that time was in charge of monitoring COVID-19 cases and contact tracing.

She said there are around 300 employees under the COVID-19 Surveillance and Quick Action Unit of the Epidemiology Bureau, and many have been complaining of their delayed salary. 

“Akala namin isang buwan lang o isa’t kalahati lang pero habang tumatagal... Ilang buwan na wala pa rin sahod,” Marie said.

(We thought the delay would just be one or one and a half months but it’s been longer than that. It’s been a few months already and we still haven’t received our salary.)

She said it’s been very hard for her since she needs to send money to her children in the province.

“Ang sabi sa amin ire-reimburse 'yung nagastos namin. So nag-try kami magtanong sa team leaders kung ano ang i-reimburse ang pera. Kasi nga galing sa bulsa mo 'yun wala kang trabaho,” she said. 

(They said they will reimburse our expenses. So we asked our team leaders about the reimbursement because we’ve been spending money and we don’t have salaries.)

She explained that they had to spend their own money for calls for contact tracing, a task that was still under the DOH in the first few months of the pandemic. With local government units now in charge of contact tracing, Marie and the rest of her fellow employees are now tasked to handle the encoding and validation of COVID-19 case data, a job that has become necessary as hospitals and laboratories are overwhelmed with the processing of COVID-19 patient data. 

Marie’s co-worker Alex (not his real name) said he had resorted to borrowing money to continue working.

“Kapagka walang pang-load o connection, inuutang po bukod sa expenses sa bahay,” he told ABS-CBN News.

(If I don’t have money for cellphone load or internet connection, I borrow money since I also have household expenses.)

Those in charge reportedly told them that the delay was due to the difficulty of processing papers during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Marie said that while they understand the delay, 3 to 4 months is too long. 

“Kahit naman may pandemic hindi dapat 4 na buwan ang tagal,” she said, adding that there were staff reporting to the DOH office when they were hired.

(Even if we're in a pandemic, it shouldn't take 4 months.)

Marie said the reason why they took the contractual job was because they needed money in the face of the virus outbreak. The pandemic, which required enforcement of quarantines limiting business and travel, has crippled the economy, sending it to a recession. 

“Pandemic nga eh taghirap talaga lahat. Sana maintindihan nila 'yung ganung sitwasyon,” she said.

(We’re in a pandemic and everyone is cash-strapped. I hope they understand the situation.)

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire on Monday admitted the delay but said it was due to the employees’ incomplete requirements.

“This has come to our attention. We have been working with the processing of their documents for a very long time already,” Vergeire told ABS-CBN News during a virtual briefing.

She said because the employees are working from home, many have been unable to submit their required documents such as copies of IDs.

But Alex said they have long completed their requirements and still have not yet received pay from the government.

Asked if the processing is per batch, Vergeire said that is not the case. However, she said there were a lot of issues with the documents of the employees.

“Start of September 5 we have already expedited the process. Aming tinutukan (we are focusing on it),” she added.

On Wednesday, Marie told ABS-CBN News that they were informed that those who will have their contract ending this month will only be given a “backpay voucher” as assurance that they will be paid as soon as the documents are processed.

“Minsan iniisip na nga lang namin [kung] may pondo sila sa pag-hire ng madami,” she said.

(Sometimes we wonder if they really have money to hire many people.)

The national debt reached over P9 trillion in July due to government borrowing for the country's COVID-19 response.