Travelers get caught up in Immigration-DBM standoff over overtime pay

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MANILA – (UPDATED 7:15 P.M) Long lines of passengers waiting to catch their flight illustrate the impact of the apparent bureaucratic standoff between the Bureau of Immigration and the Budget department, as absences among immigration officers have caused delays in processing of travelers. This, at a worst time–the days leading up to Holy Week.

Most of the absences were filed as sick leaves, but some immigration officials conceded they had reports that some immigration officers did not have money to go to work, with overtime pay not having been paid for months.

In a statement (FULL TEXT BELOW), BI chief Jaime Morente explained that the workers had gotten such benefits the past threee decades since the time of then-commissioner Miriam Santiago, and urged all concerned to consider such historical precedents. Having enjoyed such as inherent parts of their pay and benefits package, the employees suffered serious financial disruptions from the abrupt termination of the program, the BI explained.

The long queues at immigration counters have triggered concern, coming just days before Holy Week when the volume of travelers usually peaks. Security concerns have also been flagged, given earlier alerts about terrorists possibly exploiting the problem of overburdened BI screeners.

The long queues for immigration clearance are apart from the long lines at the gates and the check-in counters – this, at a time when temperatures are starting to soar.

Airlines have taken some steps to ensure their passngers don’t get left behind, including the deployment of airline representatives near the BI counters to watch out for passengers who may have been held up in the lines.

At the NAIA Terminal 3 departure area on Tuesday, six BI officers were absent, leaving not enough people to man the 26 immigration counters.

The BI said several of those who have been absent are problematic over their unpaid overtime pay – a bone of contention between the BI and the Department of Budget and Management, which disallowed in January the years-long practice of BI dipping into their Express Lane funds kitty to cover for their employees’ overtime.

In a radio interview Monday, DBM Secretary Benjamin Diokno explained that while the BI invokes the Immigration law as basis for using that fund for overtime, they had to follow the Civil Service Commission rule that in no case should any State employee be paid overtime that is equivalent to more than 50 percent of his regular salary.

In the BI’s case, said Diokno, they had noted a troubling pattern, where the aggregate overtime payouts were equivalent to 500 percent of the employees’ regular pay – something that he said sounded incredible, as it implied many of them would be working on average 16 hours a day.

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Atty. Antonette Mangrobang, BI spokesperson, said: “Dahil sick leave ang pina-file nila, meron silang some sort of karamdaman. But our immigration port operations chief said that some of our officers are financially incapable of reporting for work.”

Some passengers felt shortchanged about being caught in the middle of this tug of war.

Kaninang umaga pa kami dito [We’ve been here since morning],” one traveler told News5.

Said another: “Ngayon, daming nakapila. Pero dati mas mabilis [Now, so many people are in line. It used to be faster before].”

The Department of Justice has reportedly asked President Duterte to allow the grant of overtime pay to immigration officers since this is allowed by the Immigration Code.

The DOJ viewed with favor the BI argument that the funds used for overtime are not drawn from the national budget anyway, but from fees paid by the public transacting with Immigration.

With the expected surge of travelers for Holy Week, the BI is appealing to its employees at its head office in Manila to make a sacrifice and report for work at the airports in order to avoid long lines forming.

Mangrobang explained: “The offices of the Bureau of Immigration are all on Holy Week break or holiday, so they will not be able to have their holiday on those days but they need to perform their functions at the airport. However, we will offset that [airport duty] with the work days that they should perform here at the main office.”

All efforts are being undertaken to ensure that the service of the immigration at the airports are not hampered, she said.

Meanwhile, authorities have renewed their appeal to travelers to go to the airports much earlier in order to give themselves enough lead time for being processed.

SEE FULL TEXT OF BUREAU OF IMMIGRATION STATEMENT BELOW:

The Bureau of Immigration believes in and stands by the wisdom of then Immigration Commissioner Miriam Defensor Santiago who asserted in February 1988 that employees of the Bureau should be granted honorarium/allowance not coming from the General Appropriations Act. With this in mind, the mechanism of the Express Lane Fund/Charges (ELF) was created for overtime charges collected from “other persons served” based on Section 7A of Commonwealth Act (CA) 613 otherwise known as Philippine Immigration Law of 1940. 

For 29 years since then, the honorarium/allowance called “overtime pay” has served as a much-needed augmentation for the low salary levels of the regular employees of the Bureau. 

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Then President Joseph E. Estrada also approved on March 8, 1999, the granting of honorarium/allowance for detailed, contractual or all non-organic personnel or consultants to be taken from Express Lane Trust Fund (ELF) of the Bureau of Immigration. Permanent/ organic employees already enjoyed this benefit based on CA 613.

These key executive decisions have been instrumental in enabling a more professional and efficient organization through the years. The many innovations that are taking place are made possible because of the competence and dedication of the entire BI team. 

We take this time to clarify the supposed non-request for payment of regular OT pay. There is a letter request by the Immigration Officers to hold in abeyance the processing of the regular overtime pay pending the final resolution of the retention of the OT pay sourced from the ELF. BI Employees believe that proceeding with the request for payment of the regular OT pay may be construed later as abdication of their appeal to bring back the honorarium/allowance from the ELF.

On behalf of the men and women of the Bureau of Immigration, I call on the Department of Budget and Management to revisit the historical precedents and reconsider their stand not to retain the granting of honorarium/allowance from the ELF. Given the background be and rationale behind the creation and retention of the ELF, it is clear that these benefits are properly part of the compensation of the BI employees.

The BI employees, both organic and non-organic, are all affected by the drastic and abrupt implementation of the decision to stop granting the honorarium from ELF. The proposed solution of granting additional positions to the Bureau does not address the problem and will not alleviate their current economic plight. 

To the men and women of the Bureau of Immigration, we stand together in this quest for what is due and proper. We must continue to act with professionalism and prudence, strong and confident in the belief that justice will prevail. We continue to pray for enlightened thinking and Divine guidance for the quick resolution of the issues at hand. Let us close ranks and keep the values of patriotism, integrity and professionalism in these trying times. In unity and with conviction, we remain loyal, dedicated servants of the Filipino people. 

JAIME H MORENTE
Commissioner

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