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10-Day Countdown: Health Workers Threaten Mass Actions, Lockdown If Risk Allowance Not Released; DOH To Use Contingency Fund

10-Day Countdown: Health Workers Threaten Mass Actions, Lockdown If Risk Allowance Not Released; DOH To Use Contingency Fund
Personnel from the Quezon City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office and the City Health Department train to wear personal protective equipment on March 13, 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Michael Varcas, The Philippine STAR

The Department of Health will use P311 million from its contingency fund to pay the special risk allowance or SRA of health care workers (HCWs), a DOH official said on Monday, Aug. 23.

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire noted at a press briefing they have initially identified 20,156 private and public HCWs who will receive the SRA.

“This is not yet final because we have to wait for the lists submitted to our regional health office. This P311 million can be sourced from our contingency fund to which the Department of Budget and Management already asked approval from the Office of the President,” she said.

On Monday, the Filipino Nurses United (FNU) started a 10-day countdown to the release of the SRA.

FNU president Maristela Abenojar said the group and other organizations of HCWs would launch “big mass actions” if the SRA is not released as promised. The countdown ends on Sept. 1.

In a memorandum dated Aug. 21, DOH Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega asked DOH regional offices and the minister of health for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to submit the list of all remaining health care workers eligible to get the SRA.

On Friday, Aug. 20, Duterte gave the DOH and the DBM 10 days to release the benefits during a recorded address to the nation aired on  Saturday, Aug. 21.

“If they will not release the SRA after 10 days, health workers from the private and public sector will bond together for big mass actions,” she added.

Abenojar said at a separate press conference that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and HCWs were already being neglected by the government.

She added that nurses and HCWs have been patiently awaiting the release of the SRA that they are “legally entitled to as frontliners in this pandemic.”

Health care workers from private hospitals said they are ready with their “coordinated lockdown” if authorities fail to release their SRA by Sept. 1.

“Before we jump for joy, let’s make sure the President’s order (to release the SRA) wouldn’t just serve as cold water to douse the rage of health care workers but as concrete action to ad-dress our requests,” St. Luke’s Medical Center-QC Employees Association president Jao Clumia said in a statement in Filipino.

Clumia stressed the benefits should be provided to all hospital workers regardless of position and status of employment.

“The fight is not over until all health care workers receive their benefits like SRA, life insurance, meal, accommodations and transportation. We will not stop calling the attention of the those concerned to the hardship we have experienced in this time of crisis,” UST Hospital Union president Don Siazon said.

The Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), for its part, called on legislators to prioritize the passage of measures that aim to provide immediate cash aid to people most affected by the pandemic, especially workers.

“The people are in dire need of support during these times. The threat of COVID-19 is still serious. The lockdowns have restricted our movement, and it’s hard to find jobs. People die left and right, if not of COVID – of poverty and hunger,” KMU secretary general Jerome Adonis said in Filipino.

Priority measures, he said, should include the P10,000 ayuda bill, P100 daily wage subsidy bill and the paid pandemic leave bill.

The Senate is expected to tackle the Bayanihan to Arise as One Act, a P405-billion relief package and the third in the Bayanihan series.

Sen. Bong Go said he has appealed to the DOH to ensure the proper use of COVID-19 funds, especially for the compensation of health care workers.

“In this time, every day, every hour and every minute, precious lives of Filipinos are a stake. Especially in time of crisis, every single peso counts. Let’s work together to save lives,” Go said in Filipino.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Employment is pushing for an increase in the monthly pay of newly hired HCWs, in an apparent effort to discourage them from seeking employment abroad.

At a virtual briefing on Monday, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III reported the DOLE is finalizing a recommendation to provide better pay for HCWs employed in the private sector.

“What we’re studying – and hopefully this will be the recommendation we will send to Malacañang together with the DOH – is for the HCWs in the private sector to have an entry level similar to that of HCWs in the public sector,” Bello said.

“Anytime we are expected to submit our recommendation to the Cabinet Assistance group for them to collate all this recommendation regarding the proposed bill to improve benefits of HCWs in the private sector,” Bello added.

Bello said about 200,000 HCWs are expected to benefit in the event the DOH proposal is approved. Aside from nurses, Bello said the proposed measure will also benefit doctors, medical technologists and other workers responsible for the delivery of health care service.

According to Bello, the DOLE conducted consultation with concerned government agencies and private hospitals prior to the drafting of the recommendation to be submitted to Malacañang and Congress.

“Private hospitals are earning so it’s only fair that they should provide higher pay to HCWs. They render the same services to the public sector,” Bello explained.

He said he hopes the President would certify the proposal as urgent as private hospitals and some legislators have expressed their support for it.

Bello said the DOLE has long been advocating for the passage of pending bills seeking more benefits for HCWs in the private sector.

The DOLE chief also said they are still studying whether to recommend the raising of the existing cap in the deployment of HCWs abroad.

“We would like to exercise caution because we don’t want to run short of HCWs if we deploy more of them abroad, especially now with cases (of COVID) rising, including the new variant,” he pointed out.

He said they hope to discuss the matter with the DOH, Professional Regulation Commission and the Philippines Nurses Association before submitting a recommendation to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases or IATF.   With Cecille Suerte Felipe