Coronavirus in Chile

Public Employees to Return to Work Despite Pandemic

SANTIAGO – According to health authorities from the Chilean government, the peak of the coronavirus outbreak will be in May. Nevertheless, the government is having public employees return to work starting this week. Various employee unions reject the plan and are pursuing legal actions.

On Apr. 17, on Radio Cooperativa, Minister of Labor María José Zaldívar announced that President Sebastián Piñera had ordered public employees “to gradually return to their jobs and start attending Chileans face-to-face again.” Zaldívar called public workers in Chile “an absolutely privileged group … We are guaranteed our jobs, our salaries, and therefore we owe it to the citizens to be at their service.”

Each public institutions in Chile must draft its own plan for the gradual return of workers and send it for approval to the Ministry of Labor. In those plans, workers in risk groups, such as people age 70 and older and pregnant women, should be allowed to work from home. People outside risk groups must return to work outside the home beginning in a gradual form, and institutions are obliged to take all the precautions necessary, by facilitating face masks and alcohol gel and by implementing social distancing measures.

Some experts doubt these measures are enough. The Covid-19 council, made up of health experts and which often counsels the government on themes surrounding the coronavirus, said that it was not consulted over the announced plan and warned that the return to work by public employees could worsen the current outbreak.

As of this writing, Chile has over 10,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and according to the Health Ministry, the peak of the curve is still weeks away.

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“An Irresponsible Act”

José Pérez, president of the public workers union ANEF, called the measure “an irresponsible act”. He said his organization would take all necessary actions to avoid its workers from going back to their jobs right now and called upon other union leaders to tell their members not to follow the government’s instructions either. Shortly after that, the Comptroller’s Office and the Public Ministry announced they would not follow the instructions and instead would continue to let their employees work from home.

Opposition sectors were also quick to condemn the measure, and even Mario Desbordes, president of Piñera’s party, Renovación Nacional, called it “an unnecessary risk to make public officials return. We have a huge economic crisis, there is no doubt about that, but this is not how we are going to solve the economic crisis. We can make the health crisis worse.”

“Public Servants Prepared All Their Life For This Moment”

Government ministers defended the plan of President Piñera. Spokeswoman Karla Rubilar gave the announcements epic proportions, stating, “today is the time for public officials to step up. We know that public servants have prepared all their life for this moment.”

Alejandro Weber, head of the Civil Service, offered a more detailed insight into the return plan in an interview with daily La Tercera. “Today, on Monday, managers and heads of teams must be back in their place. Later the teams will return gradually. We expect some 60,000 workers to return over the coming days.”

Public health organizations have announced legal actions to fight the plan from the administration. On Monday, four unions of public workers filed protection appeals with the Court of Appeals in Santiago to prevent workers from returning to their jobs. They say the circumstances are still too dangerous for workers to return in person. Later on Monday, members of the ANEF demonstrated in front of La Moneda Palace against the plan. The nine protesters were arrested for violating the quarantine that applies in the area.

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