The sad state of the Comelec offices: crowded, rented, worn out
MANILA, Philippines – Sarah Jean Payoyo, who has worked at the Electoral Commission (Comelec) for 38 years, has long wanted better working conditions.
On the eighth floor of Palacio del Gobernador, the tall building in Intramuros, Manila, the commission’s longtime Financial Services Department (FSD) employee shares a small office space – 231 square meters to be exact – with 54 other employees on site (79 pre-pandemic), in addition to numerous furniture and appliances.
There are so many people there that some of his colleagues had no choice but to put their tables along the hallway, just outside the department office.
Everywhere you look there are giant stacks of physical election documents. They never run out and keep accumulating. The Comelec does not have a centralized warehouse, and the FSD alone has only a number of storage rooms – one on the seventh floor and another on the ground floor – each the size of a one bedroom condominium unit.
“We just improvise, like putting the bond papers on the booths. It’s a fire hazard,” Sarah said. “The problem is that we don’t have our own building.”
“Fire hazard” is not a word thrown around lightly, but even former senior Comelec officials agree that Palacio is not the safest place to hold office.
“The building is very risky in case of fire and earthquake. It’s because the Palacio is a very old building,” former returning officer Sheriff Abas told Rappler.
Comelec began renting office space at the Palacio del Gobernador between December 2006 and January 2007, according to spokesman Rex Laudiangco. It was a few months before the “great Comelec fire” of March 2007 – as some employees called it – which hit the old building right next to the Palacio. This space is now a parking lot.
A history of fire-related incidents haunts Comelec, former polling commissioner Luie Guia said, in part because of the physical condition of those workplaces.
“There were small fires in the 1990s that were suspicious,” Guia told Rappler. “But 2007 was really this huge fire that if you’ve ever been a Comelec employee, you’ll be like, ‘I’m not surprised this happened.’ It’s really a fire hazard, it’s made of old wooden materials.
After a fire engulfed part of the IT department’s office in July, new polling station chief George Garcia took the opportunity to urge Congress to fund a new building. It would cost 8.2 billion pesos, he said, but even just a percentage of the cost would help kick-start its construction.
For Sean Resurreccion, a Comelec employee since 2017, going back and forth is part of the job. But it is not a messenger.
Comelec’s Vulnerable Sectors Office (VSO) – of which Resurreccion is a part as an electoral field agent – is not located in Palacio, but in another building rented by the polling body Far East Managers and Investors Incorporated (FEMII), approximately 140 yards one way.
Like the other Comelec employees in the FEMI building, she has to walk several times a day, crossing several streets to get to the Palacio del Gobernador, just to get some papers signed. As Comelec offices are dispersed within Intramuros, some buildings are further away.
Resurreccion was among those who helped draft Comelec’s 2020 feasibility study on the need for a new Comelec building. She said it’s a project close to her heart.
“The safety and security of employees crossing the Palacio del Gobernador was reiterated in the feasibility study, as Avenida Soriano is a busy street,” she said.
For Payoyo, walking may soon become more tedious. She said her department plans to move her and other staff to the JS Contractual building – nearly half a kilometer from Palacio – due to limited space in their current office.
“Moving documents from one division to another will be difficult,” Payoyo said, lamenting potential work delays that may arise.
“Coordination is a problem. Most VSO staff are newbies and don’t know where other departments’ offices are, who their heads are, etc. They don’t have deep knowledge of their colleagues,” Resurreccion added.
The struggles of regional employees
Some Comelec agents from the regions travel five to 12 hours a day to Manila just to get paperwork signed at the main office in Palacio.
“For example, Comelec employees from Ilocos leave their hometown at 10 p.m. and will arrive here in Manila before business hours. They take refuge right under the tree until the working hours begin. I feel sorry for them,” Comelec employees union president Mac Ramirez said, adding that he sometimes offers them the union office so they can rest, although it is not the most ideal.
“If they have money, maybe they can book a hotel room, but it’s a waste if they just submit paperwork and go home afterwards,” he said. told Rappler.
If Congress grants Comelec funding for a new building, Ramirez’s anecdote will be a thing of the past.
A dormitory for visiting field staff is among those included in the proposed building complex that Comelec wants to construct on its two-hectare property along Macapagal Avenue in Pasay City.
Overall, spokesperson Laudiangco said the nine-story complex will include a main office, a warehouse complex and a multi-purpose building.
There will also be multi-storey parking, which is good news for employees.
“Every day, employees pay parking fees, which could have been part of their savings,” Resurreccion said. “And we share parking with the Immigration Office, Treasury Office, Intramuros Administration and other offices nearby.”
Employees also said a new building would better help them follow COVID-19 protocols.
“I am in the service of education and information. At one point, we were 60 in the department. Our membership is growing as the elections approach,” Ramirez explained. “Our offices are cramped. It became a problem because we took social distancing into account.
“Before, we were asked to open the windows. Sometimes the air conditioning is broken. It is very hot,” Payoyo said.
Employees also believe that a new workplace will boost office productivity.
“Most of our offices lack natural light, especially those without windows. There is no conscious awareness of what is happening outside the office. Sometimes we will just be surprised by the heavy rain when we go out,” said Resurreccion.
“Our compatriots must understand that if we have our own building, we will be more inspired to work and our employees will gain morale,” Ramirez added. “It is the public who benefits.
Past Comelec administrations have tried, but failed, to reward employees with a building they deserve.
The late former Comelec president, Sixto Brillantes Jr., took the lead when he was appointed in 2011 by including this lifelong dream among his goals. The Brillantes commission even bought the land in Pasay in 2012.
“Strategic Goal 10: Build Comelec’s main office building and field offices to improve morale, efficiency and independence,” reads Comelec’s 2011 to 2015 strategic plan. “Before 2016, complete the construction of a new Comelec building.
But Brillantes pulled out of Comelec without completing the project, while successive administrations have struggled to regain momentum, in part because of the many changes of guards at Comelec, and the electoral cycle exhausting which inevitably puts aside the internal projects to ensure the success of the elections.
Garcia, the most high-profile election lawyer to head Comelec since Brillantes, said his goal was to finish Comelec’s unfinished business.
“This building was President Brillantes’ dream, and my intention is to make that dream come true,” he said.
But can Garcia make it happen, or will it just be another unattainable dream? (To conclude) – Rappler.com
* All Filipino quotes have been translated into English, and some have been shortened for brevity.