Double whammy: BPO employees get exposed to COVID-19, lose income

Pauline Macaraeg

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BPO workers who get exposed to the virus while on the job have to quarantine themselves without regular pay

MANILA, Philippines – Tin*, a call center agent, is undergoing a 14-day quarantine after being exposed to a COVID-19 patient while at work. She will not be paid during this period.

On Sunday, May 10, Tin’s employer announced that they had identified an employee who tested positive for COVID-19. They had to evacuate the office immediately to have it disinfected, so they had to transfer all their employees who were staying on-site to another location.

Tin knew she had close contact with the employee who tested positive, so she was advised to do a 14-day quarantine by her company. Like many of her workmates, she had been staying on-site in their Manila office during the lockdown.

Together with 25 other coworkers who stayed on-site, Tin was evacuated to a condominium unit near the office. She wasn’t given an exclusive room to quarantine and wasn’t monitored closely despite having close contact with the confirmed case. Nine days later, she remains at the unit under a no work, no pay scheme.

Improper quarantine measures, no coordination

Tin and her coworkers were transferred to several units in a condominium more than a kilometer away from their office on May 10.

When she told her managers that she had close contact with the COVID-19-positive employee, she was separated from her coworkers and put in a different unit in the same condominium.

Still, she had to settle in a bedspace and share a unit with another coworker who also had contact with the confirmed case. They joined other existing tenants who were not informed that she and her workmate were supposed to be undergoing quarantine.

The company offered to send Tin back to the province so she could complete her self-quarantine period at home, but she refused because she didn’t want to go home without being monitored nor tested. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t a carrier of the virus.

‘Di ko po sure kung ano plano nila sa amin. Lagi pong sagot is i-u-update kami. ‘Til now walang concrete plan, except the plan in sending us home,” she said. (I don’t know what’s their plan for us. All they say is that they will update us. Until now they still don’t have a concrete plan, except to send us home.)

When the office resumed operations on Tuesday, May 12, Tin’s workmates evacuated the other units. She and her coworker roommate were left behind to complete their quarantine.

Tin’s employer told them they conducted contact tracing based on protocols set by the Department of Health (DOH). They also said they checked their CCTVs and logs to make sure employees who had contact with the confirmed case would be properly identified and be directed to self-quarantine.

However, Tin and another employee, Mike*, said they had close contact with the confirmed case but were not notified by the company about the contact tracing. They said they had to volunteer to isolate themselves.

The two employees said they were in a meeting with the COVID-19-positive employee on May 6, just 4 days before it was announced there was a confirmed case in the office. They said they had a training session that lasted for at least an hour with less than 10 employees in attendance. 

Under the government’s expanded testing program announced on April 14, close contacts of the confirmed case are eligible for testing using rapid test kits. They should also complete a 14-day quarantine period. (EXPLAINER: What to expect from the Philippines’ expanded coronavirus testing)

The DOH said anyone who requests to get tested must be assessed by a licensed health professional to see if he or she should be tested, and then would be instructed to proceed to the most accessible health facility for testing. Otherwise, he or she will be advised to undergo home quarantine or proceed to a community quarantine facility.

The two employees said there was no assessment done despite their requests for testing, and the company did not coordinate with their respective local government units to have them tested.

Mike, who went home before the company announcement was made, coordinated with his Barangay Health Emergency Response Team on his own to have him and his family tested.

Meanwhile, Tin and her coworker roommate were tested only on Sunday, May 17, using rapid test kits. They said it became possible after local officials noticed a series of social media posts by another coworker who sought help on her behalf. At this point, they said there was still no coordination done by the company.

Fortunately, all 3 employees tested negative. All of Tin’s roommates were also tested and got negative results.

No work, no pay, ‘floating status’

Tin’s employer resumed operations on Tuesday, May 12, after disinfecting the office. Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire told Rappler that a company could resume operations within 24 hours after identifying a confirmed case, as long as the company adhered to the cleaning and disinfection protocols set by the DOH.

The company also set out safety guidelines for everyone returning to the site, including the mandatory wearing of masks, provision of tents for sanitation purposes, and triaging.

But Tin, who hasn’t completed her 14-day quarantine period yet, still couldn’t go back to work. She received a P5,000-financial assistance from the company as a form of compensation, but she was also told that she wouldn’t be paid during this period despite being a regular employee.

Mike is also on a no work, no pay arrangement. He did not receive the P5,000-assistance, but the company assured them they will provide the financial aid in batches based on who needs it the most.

Mylene Cabalona, president of the BPO Industry Employees Network (BIEN) Pilipinas, said that the COVID-19 crisis has crippled BPO workers, particularly those who were unable to report to work. She said many displaced employees applied for government subsidies from the Department of Labor and Employment and the Department of Social Welfare and Development but were not approved.

Cabalona said BPO companies should provide displaced BPO workers with additional paid leaves and some form of financial assistance, and called for the government to mandate this. (READ: Groups urge gov’t, companies to prioritize BPO workers’ welfare amid pandemic)

Cabalona added that many BPO companies are also cutting their expenses on their regular employees by putting them on “floating status,” especially after some accounts started to pull out due to the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.

‘Pag floating, on standby ka pero wala kang suweldo. Pero ‘di ba, regular employee ka nila? May employee-employer relationship pa rin kayo. So the employer has to pay you. So ganyan ang kalakaran sa BPO, parang no work, no pay scheme,” Cabalona said.

(When you’re on floating status, you’re on standby but you’re not paid. But if you’re a regular employee, the employer has to pay you. That’s how it is with BPO companies, it’s like a no work, no pay scheme.)

Not an isolated case

Tin and Mike’s experiences are not unique. Since the lockdown period started in March, other BPO employees have also been taking the risk of being exposed to the virus daily since they are considered essential workers. (READ: [OPINION] Our BPO workers are essential in this pandemic)

Mel*, an employee of a different BPO company in Quezon City, also had to quarantine herself in April after being exposed to a co-worker who tested positive for COVID-19.

Like Tin and Mike, Mel said they were only advised to isolate themselves, but there was no proper coordination done by the company, too. The only difference was that she received her salary even though she wasn’t able to report for work.

Cabalona said that many BPO workers face two major issues during the lockdown period: one is the risk of being infected, and another is the possibility of not getting paid despite being a regular employee.

Because not all BPO companies have the work-from-home option, Cabalona said workers had to choose between going to work to get paid or being safe at home while earning nothing. She said some of those who chose to work were provided hotel and other similar accommodations, while others were made to stay in their respective offices.

Even Teleperformance, one of the world’s biggest call centers, had been accused of having poor working conditions. A report from French newspaper Le Monde in April said about 30% of Teleperformance employees in the Philippines sleep on-site on futons spread on the floor and fail to observe physical distancing.

The BPO sector in the country is a multibillion-dollar industry that employs about 1.2 million workers, according to the World Trade Report in 2019. As of 2015, it generated $22 billion in revenues and accounted for 7.3% of the Philippine GDP. (READ: A history of the BPO industry in numbers)

BPO workers like Tin, Mike, and Mel have contributed a lot to the Philippine economy in the last decade. Cabalona said it is only fair that both the government and BPO companies look after the welfare of BPO workers and support them during this pandemic. –

*Names were changed to protect their privacy

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Pauline Macaraeg

Pauline Macaraeg is digital forensics researcher for Rappler. She started as a fact checker and researcher in 2019, before becoming part of Rappler's Digital Forensics Team. She writes about the developing digital landscape, as well as the spread and impact of disinformation and harmful online content. When she's not working, you can find her listening to podcasts or K-pop bops.