New rules reduce benefits for PAGASA employees

Posted at 04/06/2013 8:20 PM | Updated as of 04/06/2013 8:26 PM

(First of two parts)

On August 14, 2012, as Tropical Storm Helen and the southwest monsoon were battering the country, another storm intensified in Diliman, Quezon City.

Employees of the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) staged a protest over the suspension of their magna carta benefits for 2012, which include subsistence allowance, laundry allowance, and hazard pay.

PAGASA has 4 shifts for forecasters with 4 weather forecasters in each shift. But forecasters like Jori Loiz skipped work because they didn't have enough money to go to their office. Because of the absences, others had to work longer hours.

Screenshot from RTVM Video of President Aquino in PAGASA on August 14, 2012

It made the headlines and prompted President Aquino to visit PAGASA's weather forecasting center. He talked to the employees in a closed-door meeting.

This triggered the release of the PAGASA employees' full magna carta benefits, which were not paid since March last year.

What happened? In a new move, the 2012 General Appropriations Act required government agencies to seek permission from the Department of Budget and Management before sourcing employees’ benefits from the agency’s savings.

This means that PAGASA’s budget for magna carta benefits—P16.38 million— was not enough. Since savings are only realized by the end of the year, benefits were delayed.

In the past, employees received these monthly because the agencies were allowed to pay benefits using savings without asking DBM's permission.

Over seven months after the protest, the DBM and Department of Science and Technology (DOST) are tightening the rules on the grant of magna carta benefits to science and technology personnel. The new policy would identify who can qualify for each benefit, as well as the rates of benefits, depending on work conditions.

Myrna Chua, DBM Director for Organization, Personnel Compensation and Classification Bureau says they are now finalizing the rules.

Screenshot from Alex Esguerra’s Video of DOST Sec. Mario Montejo

DOST Secretary Mario Montejo says the circular would encourage our scientists to stay and attract new ones, including technical people, to work in government. He assures the public that all DOST-attached agencies as well as the unions were consulted. “Most probably, whatever we're going to finalize will be applicable in 2013,” says Montejo.

On the other hand, Ramon Agustin, President of the Philippine Weathermen Employees Association (PWEA), raises concerns over the circular, which, he says, would affect not only PAGASA, but the whole DOST community.

“It is only through our magna carta benefits that we are able to live decent lives,” says Agustin. He says the new policy would damage their economic standing, but more so their morale.

The magna carta law for science and technology personnel enacted 15 years ago was anchored on S&T as a driver of progress. It was meant to make the government excel in S&T.

Our research shows that over a 5-year period, PAGASA’s operations budget covering weather forecasting increased from P290.9 million in 2008 to P809.8 million in 2012. The budget for magna carta benefits for PAGASA employees, however, remained at P16.38 million each year. The allocation for the benefits was hiked to P39.17 million this year, an increase of over 100 percent from 2012.

Screenshot from Alex Esguerra’s Video of PWEA Pres. Ramon Agustin

Agustin points out that improving S&T equipment should go hand in hand with taking care of the people. Otherwise, it will affect not only the employees, but also the whole S&T program.

“Let’s say you have a car with modern gadgets, but the driver is hungry. That car, even if it has the highest technology, will not function well. Worse, it might figure in a road accident,” says Agustin, referring to the personnel as the drivers of the S&T program.

In its letter of appeal, PWEA is asking DBM to recognize the S&T personnel’s rights based on the magna carta law. Agustin also points out that Congress Resolution in 2009, also known as Salary Standardization Law, provides that “nothing in this joint resolution shall be interpreted to reduce, diminish or in any way, alter the benefits provided for in the existing laws on magna carta benefits.”

Screenshot from Riziel Cabreros’ video of DBM Dir. Myrna Chua

Chua, however, notes the same resolution mandates DBM to craft guidelines on the payment of magna carta benefits.

Subsistence allowance and laundry allowance are provided for in the agency’s regular budget. Other benefits such as hazard pay and longevity pay are sourced from agency’s savings, which Chua describes as prone to abuse.

“DBM is trying to rationalize the use of savings, because we don't want the situation wherein agencies will declare savings and use these to pay allowances. On the other hand, the delivery of their services suffers. For example, they scrimp on their maintenance and operating expenses, they scrimp on supplies, just so they will have savings for the MC benefits,” says Chua.

In the case of PAGASA, the problem is that hazard allowance was released without any distinction on the employees’ level of exposure to hazards—a violation of the law as pointed out by DBM Secretary Butch Abad in August last year.

Chua says the grant of hazard pay is one area they really have to tighten because hazard pay may reach as high as 30 percent of the employee's basic salary and that is a big amount.

Chua echoes Abad, saying the new policy is needed so proper hazard pay is given depending on the levels of exposure to risk. “We really just want to rationalize it because even without exposure to risk they’re getting hazard pay.”

In a separate report, the Commission on Audit (COA) shows PAGASA’s non-compliance with the law on the grant of collective negotiation agreement incentives, or CNA incentives, a reward based on savings in addition to their magna carta benefits.

CNA incentives

In 2011 alone, over P15.6 million of CNA incentives were released to PAGASA officials and employees without supporting documents.

COA says PAGASA encountered the same problem on incomplete documents regarding the release of CNA incentives for 2003 and 2004 with COA holding former PAGASA chief Graciano Yumul and others accountable for about P5.1 million of disallowed incentives. The result? Around P37.28 million of CNA incentives need to be refunded by PAGASA employees.

CNA incentives

Yumul resigned in March 2012 due to personal reasons. We sought comment from PAGASA, but the officials have yet to respond to us.

In spite of these issues, Agustin says PAGASA employees, including the forecasters, will continue performing their duties, but with some reservations.

“What’s our plan once the circular is approved? Patriotism and nationalism and professionalism--these we will instill in our ranks here in PAGASA. We will continue what we are doing. We are not very sure, though, for how long.”

(This series is produced as part of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF)’s first environmental investigative reporting fellowship program in the Philippines launched in 2012.)

Read PAGASA workers' appeal to DBM