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Public Teacher Slipped and Ultimately Died - Government to Blame?

The government is not entirely blameless for a person's poverty.

The government is not entirely blameless for a person's poverty.

There’s a category of employees in the workforce that’s often overlooked – public sector workers.

Compensation and benefits used to be quite unappealing for the average rank-and-file Philippine government worker. The Salary Standardization Law, renewed every few years, has done a decent job in keeping pay for public sector workers competitive. But back in the 1980’s, the ordinary worker’s salary and attached social benefits such as healthcare coverage and insurance, wasn’t that comprehensive.

Government workers today, especially those at the very bottom ranks (lowest salary grades) are still vastly underpaid when compared to counterparts from other countries, even Asian. And it’s not just the issue on salary level – tenure is another unresolved issue, as there continue to be government workers hired on either a temporary or contractual basis.

But that’s not to say that the Philippine government has slacked in trying to provide better pay for both private and public sector workers. Workers are the backbone of the economy, providing for a steady stream of revenue from either income tax collections or by simply being consumers. That’s why laws improving worker benefits continue to be passed, such as RA 11210 which extends the maternity leave period by 75 percent. Same with RA 11058, a comprehensive occupational safety and health law, which, while not providing any additional worker benefits, aims to improve working conditions by eliminating unsafe workplaces. While these laws don’t directly increase salary, they promote workers’ rights.

Back in 1982, the conditions were not optimal for public and private workers alike. Here’s a case where, in the Supreme Court’s ruling, an emotional message was delivered, directed to a government that had failed on its declared policy to eliminate poverty – Belarmino v. ECC & GSIS.

Belarmino v. ECC & GSIS

Manuel Belarmino was a widower of Oania Belarmino, a public school teacher of eleven years. Employees Compensation Commission (ECC) was and is the government body responsible for evaluating and approving claims related to occupational illness, injury, and work-related death. Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) was and is the insurance system for public sector workers – more familiar as the agency that administers pensions, it also handles various claims from public workers, which include public school teachers.

Oania Belarmino, before her death, had worked as a public school teacher for eleven years. The current minimum salary for a public school teacher in the Philippines is 23,000 pesos a month (6,000 USD annually), which is a tenth of what those in the U.S. earn. Back in 1982, when Oania died, compensation was probably a lot worse, as she couldn’t even afford proper maternity care.

The claim for death benefits from her widower arose because Oania, in the course of her work as a teacher, slip and fell inside her classroom. After her fall, she complained of abdominal pain and stomach cramps for almost two weeks. Despite this pain she was suffering, she continued to report for work because of her workload. She went into labor eleven days after her accident and prematurely delivered a baby girl. She was at home when she delivered her baby.

Her abdominal pains persisted after the delivery, and she even got sick. She was brought into a hospital where it was found that she was suffering from septicemia post partum (post-childbirth sepsis) due to infected lacerations of the vagina. She apparently recovered and was discharged from the hospital after five days. But three days later, she died, and the cause of death was her sepsis. She was just 33 years of age.

Over a year later, her widower Manuel filed a claim for death benefits. It was denied by GSIS, ruling that septicemia post partum was not an occupational disease. Additionally, GSIS said that there was no showing that her illness was contracted by reason of her employment. And that the accident – her trip and fall inside the classroom – could not have precipitated her death. Rather, her death was caused by the infection of her lacerated wounds because of having delivered the baby at home.

The case was elevated to the ECC, which agreed with the GSIS’ ruling and dismissed the appeal. They said, “The alleged accident in school could not have been the cause of septicemia, which in this case is clearly caused by factors not inherent in employment or in the working conditions of the deceased.”

Were the GSIS and ECC correct in denying the claim for death benefits? What was the proximate cause of the public school teacher’s demise?

What was the Proximate Cause of the Teacher's Death?

The Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

While the illness, septicemia post partum was not listed as an occupational disease in her line of work as a classroom teacher, her death from that ailment was compensable because an employment accident and the conditions of her employment contributed to its development.

The Court said:

“The condition of the classroom floor cause Mrs. Belarmino to slip and fall and suffer injury as a result. The fall precipitated the onset of recurrent abdominal pains which culminated in the premature termination of her pregnancy with tragic consequences to her. Her fall on the classroom floor brought about her premature delivery which caused the development of post partum septicemia which resulted in death. Her fall therefore was the proximate cause that set in motion an unbroken chain of events, leading to her demise.”

The Court cited a couple of cases expounding on what proximate cause is. And it responded to the argument by GSIS and ECC that the slip-and-fall accident could not have caused her death since the sepsis was due to delivering the baby at home:

“The argument is unconvincing. It overlooks the fact that septicemia post partum is a disease of childbirth, and premature childbirth would not have occurred if she did not accidentally fall in the classroom.

“It is true that if she had delivered her baby under sterile conditions in a hospital operating room instead of in the unsterile environment of her humble home, and if she had been attended by specially trained doctors and nurses, she probably would not have suffered lacerations of the vagina and she probably would not have contracted the fatal infection.”

Social justice for the underpaid will only be an empty principle until the government adopts measures to ameliorate economic conditions.

Social justice for the underpaid will only be an empty principle until the government adopts measures to ameliorate economic conditions.

A Declared State Policy

In ruling the case in favor of Belarmino's widower, the Court delivered a compassionate stand for the ordinary public sector worker. "The court may take judicial notice," it said, "of the meager salaries that the Government pays its public school teachers. Forced to live on the margin of poverty, they are unable to afford expensive hospital care, nor the services of trained doctors and nurses when they or members of their families are in. Penury compelled the deceased to scrimp by delivering her baby at home instead of in a hospital."

And Justice Prino-Aquino, who penned the decision, didn't stop there. He went on a tirade about how government was to blame for her inability to afford the care she needed:

"The Government is not entirely blameless for her death for it is not entirely blameless for her poverty. Government has yet to perform its declared policy 'to free the people from poverty, provide adequate social services, extend to them a decent standard of living, and improve the quality of life for all (Sec. 7, Art. II, 1973 Constitution and Sec. 9, Art. II, 1987 Constitution).

"Social justice for the lowly and underpaid public school teachers will only be an empty shibboleth until Government adopts measures to ameliorate their economic condition and provides them with adequate medical care or the means to afford it..."

The Current State and Looking Ahead

Oania Belarmino's story rings true until today. Some may have jobs with guaranteed paychecks, but are the compensation and benefits enough to cover for the care needed during crucial times? Had she had better benefits, she probably would have sought maternity care inside a proper healthcare facility. And she probably would have stayed longer than the five days at the hospital for further care for her sepsis.

Looking ahead, Philippine government has found ways to provide more adequate social support to the ordinary worker, and things look better. But the country needs to reach a place where wages can actually afford the care needed. To date, minimum wage sits at just under 3,000 USD annually (computed based on daily minimum wage). Childbirth can cost up to 2,000 USD, but I know some people who've told me that they spent as much as 10,000 USD.

There's still a lot of ground to cover in terms of improving compensation and benefits for the ordinary Filipino worker.

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