Questions on Dealing with COVID-19 in the Workplace
Many circulars and regulations have been issued by various government agencies in the Philippines, including the Philippines’ Department of Health, the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, the Department of Trade and Industry, among others. The various local governments in the Philippines, from the various city and municipal governments, including the barangays, already issued varying regulations which businesses, particularly the owners, must comply with and continuously abide by, for the commencement and continuous operations of their businesses.
Because of variance in these regulations, business owners remain clueless as to how to proceed, if an employee or someone in the workplace comes in contact with a person who turns out to be COVD-19 positive.
Should the particular employee who tested COVID-19 positive continue to report to work? The answer is obvious here: no. However, more questions arise if the employee had interaction or close contact with someone who tested as COVID-19 positive. The implications of such a situation are far-reaching on a business with physical operations. For one, the said employee probably had interaction with other co-employees in the office. What should the employer do then? Ultimately, it is the employer that needs to answer these queries, particularly those concerning the company’s obligations to the employee, and to various agencies, concerning protocol, testing, contact tracing, and reporting. Below are some of the questions that employers face under such situation.
Who is responsible for contact tracing?
Contact tracing was previously the responsibility of the whole government. The Department of Health, through the through the Epidemiology Bureau(EB), shall provide guidelines and oversight on these activities.
However, the recent issuances already mandate that the responsibility for contact tracing also be by the employer. The DTI and DOLE Supplemental Guidelines do not specify a period as to how far back employers must conduct contact tracing.
Based on its definition of close contacts, it may be assumed that contact tracing goes as far back as exposures from a suspected, probable, or confirmed case, two (2) days from onset of symptoms.
Who is a person who is considered for contact tracing, or one who is said to have close contacts with a confirmed COVID-19 case?
Joint Memorandum Circular No. 20-04-A issued on 15 August 2020 by the DTI and DOLE, also known as the DTI and DOLE Supplemental Guidelines on Workplace Prevention and Control of COVID-19 provide for the definition of Close Contacts. It states:
“Close contacts shall be defined as employees with exposures two (2) days or within 14 days from onset of symptoms of a suspect, confirmed or probable case. Exposure shall be any of the following:
a. Face-to-face contact with a confirmed case within one (1) meter and for more than 15 minutes, with or without a mask;
b. Direct physical contact with a confirmed case; or
c. Direct care for a patient with probable or confirmed COVID-19 disease without using PPEs.”
(Joint Memorandum Circular No. 20-04-A, Series of 2020 available here)
DOH Administrative Order No. 2020-0013 defines a suspect, probable, and confirmed case as follows:
a. Suspect – a person who is presenting with any of the conditions below:
i. All Severe Acute Respiratory Infection (SARI) cases where no etiology fully explains the clinical presentation.
ii. Influenza-like Illness (ILI) cases with any one of the following:
1. With no other etiology that fully explains the clinical presentation AND a history of travel to or residence in an area that reported local transmission of COVID-19 disease during the 14 days prior to symptom onset; or
2. With contact to a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19 in the two days prior to onset of illness of the probable/confirmed COVID-19 case until the time the probable/confirmed COVID-19 case became negative on repeat testing.
b. Probable – a suspect case who fulfills any one of the following:
i. Suspect case whom testing for COVID-19 is inconclusive
ii. Suspect case who has tested positive for COVID-19 but whose test was not conducted in a national or subnational coronavirus reference laboratory, or an officially accredited laboratory for confirmatory testing. iii. Confirmed – any individual, irrespective of presence or absence of clinical signs and symptoms, who was laboratory confirmed for COVID-19 in a test conducted at the national reference laboratory, a subnational reference laboratory, and/or DOH-certified laboratory testing facility.
Are employers required to do contact tracing?
Employers are now mandated to conduct contact tracing. This is based on Joint Memorandum Circular No. 20-04-A, Series of 2020, which expressly provides guidelines for contact tracing within the workforce, requiring employers to conduct contact tracing to identify close contacts, mandating the provision of RT-PCR tests, and the submission of regular reposts. In addition, employers are also mandated to conduct contact tracing of customers and visitors, requiring the filling up and use of forms by visitors entering private establishments or business premises, and the use of technologies such as contactless forms for such purpose.
Are employers mandated to bear the medical costs (testing) and expenses for COVID-19 testing of their employees, office visitors or office transients?
The new Guidelines issued by the DOLE and DTI do not mandate employers to conduct or provide testing for employees or visitors.
When Joint Memorandum Circular No. 20-04-A, Series of 2020 was issued, it mandated testing to be undertaken by employers for their employees, especially those belonging to certain sectors or industries.
This was later clarified and amended by Advisory No. 20-01, Series of 2020, issued on 17 August 2020, which modified the wording “shall undergo RT-PCR Test” to the directory or optional word “MAY”. Thus, workers and employees in the hospitality and tourism sectors in El Nido, Boracay, Coron, Panglao, Siargao and other tourist zones, as identified and declared by the Department of Tourism MAY be tested once every four (4) weeks, workers and employees of manufacturing companies and public service providers registered in economic zones located in Special Concerns Areas MAY be tested every three months, and frontline and Economic Priority Workers, particularly those who work in high priority sectors, both public and public, those employees who have high interaction with and exposure to the public, and those who live or work in Special Concern Areas, MAY be tested every three months.
Therefore, employers may test workers for COVID-19 and that testing kits used and procured shall be the responsibility of the employer. This does not mean that employers are mandated to provide testing for its workers, especially in view of the clarification made under Advisory No. 20-01, Series of 2020. .
Similarly, the Interim Guidelines for Return-To-Work dated 11 May 2020 issued by the Department of Health state that employers may opt to conduct testing in a representative sample of those who returned to work. But again, the use of the word “may” suggests that employers are not mandated to provide such testing. In any evet, should a company opt to conduct testing in your workplace, it is clear that the testing kits used and procured shall be the responsibility of the employer, as mentioned in the previous regulations. This means, therefore, that should testing be elected to be done by the employer, the costs will be borne by the employer.
To which government authority or authorities are employers accountable to?
Private establishments are accountable to the DOLE, DTI and concerned LGUs.
Section VIII of the DTI and DOLE Supplemental Guidelines provide that the DOLE, DTI, and concerned LGU’s Health and Sanitation Office shall strictly monitor compliance with the Guidelines/Joint Memorandum through inspection and post-audit mechanisms. It also states that in case of findings of non-compliance, the private establishment shall be temporarily closed until full compliance with the prescribed minimum health protocols.
Either way, the employer is required to provide the Department of Labor and Employment, through its Regional Office, and copy furnished the DOH, a monthly reporting of illness, diseases and injuries utilizing the DOLE Work Accident/Illness Report Form (WAIR). This requirement remains.
What records or documents should an employer provide the authorities?
The DTI and DOLE Supplemental Guidelines states that “even before testing, the Occupational Safety and Health Officer/employer must report COVID-19 positive employees, symptomatic employees, and their close contacts, to the local health office having jurisdiction over the workplace and the Barangay Health Emergency Team (BHERT) of their place of residence, in accordance with DOH DM No. 2020-0189.”
A Report to the DOLE should also be made in accordance with Section X of the DTI-DOLE Interim Guidelines on Workplace Prevention and Control of COVID-19 using the Work Accident/Illness Report (WAIR) COVID-19 form (attached as Annex F in the DTI and DOLE Supplemental Guidelines).
Section X of the DTI-DOLE Interim Guidelines issued on 30 April 2020 provides that the employer shall provide the DOLE through its Regional Office, copy furnished the DOH, monthly reporting of illness, diseases and injuries utilizing the DOLE Work Accident/Illness Report Form, to wit:
“X. REPORTING OF ILLNESSES/DISEASES/INJURIES The employer shall provide the DOLE through its Regional Office copy furnished DOH, monthly reporting of illness, diseases and injuries utilizing the DOLE Work Accident/Illness Report Form (WAIR).”
What are the applicable rules and regulations which employers must comply with to be able to commence physical operations in the company?
For the workplace in particular, the main guidelines that employers should comply with are the Interim Guidelines for Return-to-Work and the Interim Guidelines jointly issued by the DTI and DOLE. Both may be accessed through the links provided at the end of this FAQ.
As regards transients and office visitors, what are the company’s obligation?
Since the new Guidelines for the Workplace now mandate employers to take initiatives to inform all visitors who may have come into contact with the confirmed case, the duties of the employer is now expressly provided therein, as regards contact tracing in the workforce:
“3. Contact Tracing among the Workforce
a. Employers shall conduct contact tracing within their workplace to identify close contacts. Workplace CCTV may be used to determine close contacts.
b. Employers shall ensure that close contacts of employees whose RT-PCR test confirmed positive undergo a 14-day quarantine period.
c. During the 14-day quarantine, close contacts shall be required to regularly report to their employer any development, including new symptoms. Symptomatic employees should update their employer regarding their COVID-19 test results from a nationally accredited testing facility.
d. Close contacts who remain asymptomatic for 14 days may return to work without need for a test.
e. Employers shall make available work-from-home (WFH) arrangements for the close contacts when feasible.”
The DTI and DOLE Supplemental Guidelines also provides for the Contact Tracing of Customers and Visitors. It states:
“4. Contact Tracing of Customers and Visitors
a. Customers, including visitors, entering private establishments/business premises shall be required to completely accomplish the Contact Tracing Form (Annex A-2 provided in the Memorandum)
b. Contact tracing forms shall be surrendered daily to the HR officer for future reference and safekeeping.
c. Employers shall explore the use of technology, such as by using contactless forms.
Contactless forms shall be handled with the highest degree of confidentiality and securely disposed of after thirty (30) days.”
In addition to the added responsibility of contact tracing, employers are mandated to implement all the necessary workplace safety and health programs. The new guidelines enumerated some of these programs:
a. Employers shall provide their employees with psychosocial support, especially those presenting mental health concerns. If this is not available, a referral system to mental health specialists must be in place, either through establishing a network with an accredited health facility, through telemedicine services, or through the National Center for Mental Health Crisis Hotline at 0917-899-8727 (0917-899-USAP) and (02) 7-989-8727 ((02)-7-989-USAP).
b. Employers shall likewise promote work-life balance, especially in these trying times through proper scheduling of activities and workforce rotation.
c. Company policies on prevention and control of COVID-19 should be aligned with the existing minimum public health standards and guidelines issued by the DOH and other regulatory agencies.
d. Measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission, including wearing of facemasks at all times, proper disposal of masks, wearing of face shields, especially when interacting with colleagues, clients and/or visitors, strict physical distancing, frequent disinfection, availability of supplies and materials to employees, clients and visitors, such as soap, sanitzers, etc., placed in strategic locations in the workplace (hallways, conference areas, points of entry, etc.), display of signages to remind employees, visitors and guests of proper hygiene, handwashing, and other safety protocols, provision of adequate ventilation inside the workplace, and also in the shuttle service (requiring opening of windows of at least three (3) inches and proper disinfection and cleaning). On the other hand, Part IX of the Interim Guidelines states that the DTI and DOLE shall extend assistance and technical support to all workplaces, employers, and workers in complying with the guidelines. Hence, further instructions or assistance may be availed from the DTI and the DOLE as regards matters of testing, reporting, or monitoring COVID-19 cases in the workplace.
What are some of the rules and regulations issued by the Philippine authorities which companies and employers must be aware of:
The following issuances mention protocols as regards declaration or reporting confirmed cases:
1. DTI and DOLE Supplemental Guidelines on Workplace Prevention and Control of COVID-19 [Joint Memorandum Circular No. 20-04-A, Series of 2020] available here.
a. Section II (D) provides that employers shall direct symptomatic individuals through appropriate health system points such as the primary care facility or telehealth consultation.
b. It also provides that employers may contact the DOH through its hotline 1555 for guidance on the handling and referring symptomatic employees.
c. Section V on Notification and Reporting, it states that the reporting of test results to the DOH shall be done in accordance with DOH Administrative Order No. 2020-0013 (Revised Guidelines for the Inclusion of COVID-19 in the List of Notifiable Diseases for Mandatory Reporting to the Department of Health”, a link to the Administrative Order is provided below.
D. Reporting should also strictly comply with data privacy provisions under the Data Privacy Act and Department Memorandum No. 2020-0189 to ensure that the data privacy rights of patients/subjects are respected and protected.
2. DTI and DOLE Interim Guidelines on Workplace Prevention and Control of COVID-19 issued on 30 April 2020 available here.
3. Revised Guidelines for the Inclusion of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the List of Notifiable Diseases for Mandatory Reporting to the Department of Health [Administrative Order No. 2020-0013], which may be accessed through this link. Part VI (C) provides for the specific guidelines on the Recording and Notification System of COVID-19 cases.
4. DOH Updated Guidelines on Contact Tracing of Close Contacts of Confirmed Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Cases [Department Memorandum No. 2020-0189] available here:
5. Clarification on the Expanded Risk-Based Testing for COVID-19 of At-Risk Individuals [DTI and DOLE Advisory No. 20-01, Series of 2020] available here:
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If you need assistance in labor-related issues, compliance with DOLE issuances, and company employment policies, or business-related concerns, we can help you find solutions. Nicolas and de Vega Law Offices is a full-service law firm in the Philippines. You may visit us at the 16th Flr., Suite 1607 AIC Burgundy Empire Tower, ADB Ave., Ortigas Center, 1605 Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines. You may also call us at +632 84706126, +632 84706130, +632 84016392 or e-mail us at [email protected]. Visit our website www.ndvlaw.com.