As businesses reopen, workers remain anxious over virus risks

The names of workers interviewed have been changed to protect their identity and privacy.

After months of working from home, people are now being called back to their workplaces, and this is hardly a cause for relief for them. Workers are primarily concerned about safety risks that may affect not only them but their families as well.

On May 16, quarantine restrictions were eased across the country, which meant more businesses resumed operations. Depending on the level of quarantine imposed in an area, more industries were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity or at full capacity. (READ: EXPLAINER: What's modified ECQ and modified GCQ?)

While government agencies released recommended measures to guide executives in reopening businesses, workers and employers alike still express anxiety over the risks posed by the coronavirus threat. As of Friday, May 22, there have been 13,597 confirmed coronavirus cases in the Philippines, with a death toll of 846. (READ: Things to know before resuming business operations)

Increased exposure

Daniela's banking company is now requiring employees to go back to the office, but the rising number of cases makes her anxious. The rotational arrangement that her company is implementing requires each employee to come to work at least twice a week.

While the company enforces preventive measures against the virus, Daniela also fears the risks on the trips from her home in Marikina to her workplace in Makati and back.

The virus is spread through respiratory droplets, which means one could be infected through close contact with coronavirus carriers. This risk is even more aggravated in Metro Manila, the most densely populated region in the country.

Daniela decided to carpool with an officemate to go to the office, since the company shuttle's pick-up point is far from her residence. However, she still needs to take a tricycle to go the carpool meet-up place.

"I don't know if it would be safe. I mean, there are protocols, but of course we need to be extra careful. Plus there's traffic again, which will cause more stress. I thought that since we were still under MECQ (modified enhanced community quarantine) there would be no traffic, but there is. So your worries are doubled because not only are you stuck in traffic, but there's also a virus going around," she said in Filipino.

The risks are aggravated by how workers may lose their jobs if they fail to report to work. This mindset was reflected by no less than Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez, Inquirer reported. "If an employee refuses to work, it doesn’t reflect well on his [or her] character. [He or she] should have [a] positive mindset. Otherwise, he [or she] also runs the risk of losing his [or her] job," he said.

Risks in and out of the workplace

The exposure to the virus during Daniela's trip to her workplace represents only a portion of the risks she will encounter in this new phase of work operations.

Aside from respiratory droplets, the virus may also spread through contact with contaminated surfaces. Employers and managers must consider the aspects of their workplaces that increase the likelihood of transmission. These depend on the probability of close contact or frequent contact with suspected coronavirus carriers, and contact with contaminated surfaces and objects, the World Health Organization says.

Under regular circumstances, Daniela used to interact with around 50 people every day to discuss concerns regarding deals. Before the pandemic, she said these concerns could be coursed through email or call, but it was faster to address them in person. Now, to follow safety protocols, she will be limiting her face-to-face interactions to the two teammates she'll be working with during her shift, and making use of digital channels to communicate with everyone else.

Meanwhile, Bong and Weng Aspe, who own the 1st Colonial restaurant chain, experienced a close call with the virus even outside of work operations. The 1st Colonial chain is based in the province of Albay, which is under general community quarantine. Some branches reopened on Monday, May 18, offering only takeout and delivery services. Only 30% of their workforce will be returning to the workspace.

"There was a time however [when] we provided free meals and accommodation to frontliners in a hospital near one of our branches. One of the frontliners was apparently a PUI (person under investigation), so what we did during contact tracing was we stopped our operations in that branch and we housed the employees in our hotel for quarantine. After [the Department of Health] cleared them, they were allowed to go home," Weng said.

Uncertainty continues

For others, the next phase of quarantine restrictions has not yet prompted a change in their work-from-home arrangements. Vincent, a 24-year-old who works in a business process outsourcing (BPO) company, told Rappler that there had been no news from his employers as to how the company was responding to the new quarantine levels.

"Personally, I would like to continue the current work-from-home setup for safety reasons. I come home to parents that fall within the age group that is most vulnerable to COVID-19," he said.

Vincent's team informed their manager that they would prefer not to return to the office. They are still awaiting a decision.

While Vincent considers his company generous, he has heard stories that reveal a more cruel side of his industry. "Instances of making employees sleep in the office without properly equipped sleeping quarters and shower rooms, agents forced to bring food because company concessionaires are unavailable during operating hours, and salary cuts/reduced work hours. These are very alarming situations and should be addressed and stopped ASAP," he said. (READ: Double whammy: BPO employees get exposed to COVID-19, lose income)

In Daniela's company, people who were able to go to work during the lockdown were deployed as a skeleton workforce. Since Daniela had no means to go to work, she had been working from home for the past few months.

Daniela explained that a lot of systems were only accessible in the office. Even so, she did her best to help in ways that she could.

In terms of output, Daniela said that while her company was lax during the enhanced community quarantine, she felt that they would be strict with outputs for those who would be working from home during the MECQ.

Reimagining business models

Given the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, companies have no recourse but to adapt. Businesses are adopting minimum health standards set by the government and applying them to suit the needs of their establishment.

Restaurants, for example, need more safety protocols with regard to handling food deliveries. Weng enumerated adjustments that were made in the interior of the establishments prior to reopening. The branches are regularly disinfected, dividers were put up, and chairs provided in waiting areas were spaced according to physical distancing rules. The staff also wore masks and gloves and were equipped with a sanitizing station in each area.

Delivery riders, who have higher exposure to the virus, have a designated area and are not allowed to go inside the restaurants. The costs to provide and/or implement the preventive controls are shouldered by the company.

But apart from the safety risks, the Aspes also worry about how the pandemic will reshape their business. "Our industry is one of the hardest hit by this crisis. Our biggest challenge is how to do business during the new normal where there is still COVID. Social distancing is a must, and to comply we’d have to change the layout of our restaurants to adjust," Bong said.

Bong fears that very few customers will dine in the restaurant even when the quarantine is lifted: "If dine-in is allowed in the future, we may suffer from a decrease in sales, considering low seating capacity due to layout changes in social distancing. The turnover rate may also decrease considering that people will be afraid of contracting the virus in public places."

To cope, Bong said their business model was readjusted to focus more on takeouts, deliveries, and curbside deliveries, as well as partnering with other local businesses to create new products. They are also developing their online operations.

Meanwhile, with regard to the output expected of employees at this time, Vincent believes employers must be more considerate with their expectations: "I believe that certain performance-based incentives should be reviewed and adjusted to make them more attainable, especially since performance is different under a pandemic. The standards enforced before should not be held against the employee and expected during these times."

For Daniela, since many of her company's essential systems were only accessible in her office, she hopes that her employers will adopt a more digital way of working: "Moving forward, for the new normal in the banking industry generally, I hope they become more equipped for work from home setups. So that not everyone will have to come to the office... Because we are a more traditional bank. I think I've heard of others that can cope in this situation since they have long been digital, but I think we are only beginning to go that way."

As the pandemic continues, businesses grapple with the responsibility of protecting the health and safety of their staff while innovating ways of delivering their services. Will they survive? –

Loreben Tuquero

Loreben Tuquero is a researcher-writer for Rappler. Before transferring to Rappler's Research team, she covered transportation, Quezon City, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government as a reporter. She graduated with a communication degree from the Ateneo de Manila University.