One of the more visible faces of the weather bureau, forecaster Jori Loiz appears on television nearly every day to inform the public about the approach of a typhoon or its passage through the country.
On certain days, Loiz is not there, and the reason can make your tears fall like rain: He is absent because he has no money to pay the bus fare from his home in Balagtas town in Bulacan province to the head office of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (Pagasa) in Quezon City.
“My take-home pay is P12,000. For someone who has kids studying in college and high school, that is hardly enough,” said the 48-year-old Loiz, who has been working at Pagasa for 16 years.
Loiz’s situation underscores the plight of some 900 Pagasa employees, who staged a protest on Tuesday over suspended cash benefits and warned that forecasting services could deteriorate if the problem persisted.
The forecasters and other employees of the weather bureau wore black armbands and hoisted streamers urging the government to resume the payment of their hazard pay and other allowances, which were suspended in March.
“The continuing hardship is now taking its toll on Pagasa warning services. Many of our personnel, especially those working in the field, fail to report for duty because they have no money,” said Ramon Agustin, president of the Philippine Weathermen Employees Association (PWEA).
Within an hour of hearing that, President Aquino appeared at Pagasa, startling the protesting employees.
Accompanied by Science Secretary Mario Montejo and Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Mr. Aquino assured the weathermen that they would get their hazard pay, with employees involved in the technical side of the agency’s operation getting paid first.
“First, what’s fair?” Mr. Aquino said in a talk with reporters after his meeting with the weathermen. “It’s fair when the added benefit really goes to those on hazardous assignment. Those not on hazardous duty should not be entitled to it.”
The Pagasa employees are also demanding the release of their longevity pay, subsistence and laundry allowances.
“We have no issue on that,” Mr. Aquino said.
“But when it comes to hazard pay, there has to be rhyme and reason,” he said.
The President said he reminded the Pagasa employees that their unpaid benefits should not cloud their duty to the public.
“We are experiencing such bad weather … and those who were affected by floods are still suffering. Let us not add to that,” Mr. Aquino said.
So when will the Pagasa employees get their benefits?
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma explained it for reporters: The hazard pay, subsistence allowance, laundry and longevity pay of the weathermen from April to June would be paid “on the same terms” as in the first quarter of the year.
As for the payment of the benefits for July and August, the funding source would still be reviewed, Coloma said, quoting the President.
Coloma explained that the benefits mandated by Republic Act No. 8349 do not fall under personnel services, miscellaneous and other operating expenses and are funded with savings from three major items in the national budget.
Abad said Coloma’s explanation was correct. The budget department would fund the benefits for the first semester, he said.
At Pagasa, Agustin spoke to reporters about the weathermen’s plight.
He said one weather observer, whom he identified as Alex San Pedro, died of a stroke because he was unable to finance his medication for diabetes. San Pedro worked the night shift at the Pagasa Science Garden synoptic station until he died in May.
The budget department suspended the benefits of the weathermen five months ago. In July, Science Secretary Montejo promised that the benefits would be restored by August.
It’s mid-August, but the government has not delivered on that promise, Agustin said.
“As the promised restoration of benefits is still nowhere in sight, patriotism and professionalism may no longer be a culture in Pagasa because of our aching stomachs,” Agustin said, reading from a prepared statement.
If the benefits are restored, employees like Loiz will receive P6,000 or more, depending on length of service, in addition to their basic pay.
“That is not a lot of money, but it’s going to help a lot,” Loiz said.
Agustin warned that the “demoralization” and “economic dislocation” among the bureau’s employees might lead to lower efficiency in performance. “It may also lead to the exodus of more of Pagasa’s veteran specialists,” he said.
He said that by his count, 22 weather forecasters have left Pagasa for jobs overseas in the last 10 years.
“The reason Filipino forecasters are so in-demand in other countries is that they have plenty of experience with typhoons,” Agustin said. “We get 20 typhoons every year. In other countries, they may have more advanced equipment but few storms visit them,” he said.
For ordinary people
Loiz assured the public that the basic role of Pagasa of issuing up-to-date advisories on weather systems will not be compromised.
“What we do is not really for the higher-ups, but for ordinary people who stand to suffer if we don’t perform our duties properly,” he said. With reports from TJ Burgonio and AP
Originally posted: 11:47 pm | Tuesday, August 14th, 2012