COVID-19: Occupational and Work-Related Disease

Neptali B. Salvanera

More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it is already indubitable by now that the adverse impact is not only on the health and safety of the populace but their livelihood as well. The Philippines in particular, has imposed one of the longest, if not the longest, lockdowns and this has taken a heavy and serious toll on the economy. Figures are not needed to show that there is a rising unemployment rate in the country. Companies have closed shop; some have implemented manpower reduction programs. For those that have opted to stay on and brave this unprecedented catastrophe, business operations have been far from normal. Ultimately, the Filipino workers are the ones getting the short end of the stick, so to speak.

The government has adopted and implemented a multi-pronged approach to address the dire consequences of the pandemic. Insofar as labor is concerned, the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE) has issued several advisories — from the adoption of flexible work arrangements to extension of the probationary period and bona fide suspension of operations, deferment of the payment of 13th month pay, and giving of financial assistance to workers (e.g., COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program or CAMP, DoLE-AKAP for OFWs, the TUPAD program, among others). The latest in the string of assistance is contained in Board Resolution No. 21-04-14, issued by the Employees’ Compensation Commission (ECC) in its special meeting on April 6, entitled “Conditions for the Compensability of COVID-19 under the ECC List of Occupational and Work-Related Disease or Annex ‘A’ of the Amended Rules on Employees’ Compensation (EC).” The ECC is an attached agency of the DoLE and is mandated by law to provide various services and compensation packages to private and public employees and their dependents for work-related illness, injury, or death, if they are paying members of the Social Security System (SSS) or the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS).

The long and short of it is that COVID-19 is now considered as a compensable occupational and work-related disease. The ECC justified this classification in accordance with the “increased risk theory” which provides that diseases not in the ECC List of Occupational and Work-Related Diseases may be compensable upon showing proof of work-relatedness of the said disease.

The ECC’s Occupational Safety and Health Center (OSHC) conducted a study and recommended the following:

a. COVID-19 cases be compensated under the increased risk theory
b. Automatic grant of compensation to healthcare workers (HCWs) classified as confirmed case
c. Compensation may be provided to workers infected through workplace transmission, workers affected while commuting to and from work, and those who are required to have frequent face-to-face and close proximity interactions with the public such as other frontliners (e.g., contract tracing teams), police and military personnel, and other essential workers (i.e., retail store workers, etc.).

Accordingly, the ECC Resolution provides that COVID-19 is compensable in any of the following conditions:

a. There must be a direct connection between the offending agent or event and the worker based on epidemiologic criteria and occupational risk (e.g., healthcare workers, screening and contact tracing teams, etc.);
b. The tasks assigned to the worker would require frequent face-to-face and close proximity interactions with the public or with confirmed cases for healthcare workers;
c. Transmission occurred in the workplace; or,
d. Transmission occurred while commuting to and from work.

The documentary requirements for the application of employee compensation (EC) benefits include certificate of employment and diagnosis from medical authorities with rt-PCR test results (for HCWs and other essential workers), and for non-HCWs, proof of exposure and medical records, as necessary.

An employee who contracted COVID-19, regardless of severity, will receive P30,000 from the State Insurance Fund managed and administered by the SSS. This is a three-fold increase from the usual compensation on work-related illnesses of P10,000. It is not clear though whether this is just a one-time assistance, or it is given every time an employee is infected with the virus. Also, since COVID-19 is now in the list of occupational diseases, it can be argued that on top of the P30,000, an affected employee is likewise entitled to the other benefits under the EC Program as may be applicable, such as Loss of Income Benefit, Death & Funeral Benefits, and Rehabilitation Services as administered by SSS and GSIS.

Interestingly, DoLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III, in a press briefing, said that this applies only to workers who physically report for work and transmission occurred in the workplace or while commuting to and from work. Thus, while the Resolution itself does not qualify, the ECC clarified that employees who are working from home will not get compensation if they get infected with the virus.

There may be other questions or issues arising from this issuance and hopefully the DoLE and ECC will come up with implementing regulations sooner than later.

While this and the other measures taken by the government are to me palliative at most and, therefore, much is left to be desired, at this point any kind of assistance matters to the Filipino workers who are the ones most adversely affected by the pandemic.

This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not offered and does not constitute legal advice or legal opinion.

Neptali B. Salvanera is a Partner of the Labor and Employment Department of the Angara Abello Concepcion Regala & Cruz Law Offices (ACCRALAW), located at Bonifacio Global City, Taguig City, Metro Manila, Philippines.

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