Everyday, 22-year-old video editor Caleb Mercado takes eight rides on buses, tricycles and the MRT to commute between his house and his office, all while sweating behind a face mask and face shield and putting himself at risk of catching the virus, for work that he could do at home.
The commute will be longer in the coming days as vehicles return to EDSA to avoid paying a premium on the Skyway 3. Mercado, whose employer allows a split between onsite and offsite work, said he would rather that WFH be the norm.
"Mas prefer ko talaga work from home kasi mas naranasan ko 'yung pagiging convenient niya sa akin. 'Di ko na kailangan mag-alarm, 'di ko na kailangan gumising nang maaga, 'di ko na kailangan mag-commute at makipagsiksikan, tapos tipid pa sa pamasahe," he told reportr.
COVID is the latest complication to his commuting woes between Laguna and Quezon City. Before the pandemic, it was long queues, packed buses and downpours that turned streets into rivers.
Work from home was a relief for Metro Manila's battle-hardened commuters. At the start of the lockdown, travel time between the north and south ends of EDSA was slashed to 20 minutes from two hours, according to a Reuters road test.
Commuting during the pandemic wasn't a problem, until employers slowly called people back to the offices and private shuttles gave way to buses and trains.
Can public transport keep up?
Commuters squeezed into vehicles like sardines pre-pandemic now have to observe physical distancing, which puts pressure on public transport operators to increase capacity.
Imelda (not her real name), an IT quality assurance specialist, takes a Grab car to work which costs P500 compared to P35 for a jeepney ride. She'd rather pay a huge premium than risk getting her family sick with COVID for the second time.
"Nakakatakot din kasi mag-commute. 'Di mo masabi kasi baka mamaya 'yung katabi mo sa jeep meron pala[ng COVID]," she told reportr.
About four out of 10 non-home-based workers said going to work was "very much harder" during the pandemic compared to their pre-COVID commute, according to a Nov. 21-25 SWS poll.
The survey found that 44% of commuters walk to work, making it the most common means to get to their workplace. About 24% said they ride motorcycles to get to the workplace. In Metro Manila, 21% of the workers walk to work, while in the rest of Luzon, it was at 39%.
At the start of July 2021, EDSA traffic peaked to almost pre-pandemic levels, said the MMDA. The number-coding scheme will remain suspended as there's simply not enough public conveyances, said MMDA Chairman Benhur Abalos.
Under general community quarantine (GCQ), public transport in Metro Manila is limited to 50% passenger capacity. This means that to keep up with pre-pandemic demand, capacity must be doubled.
Can everyone afford to work from home?
In 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte signed the Telecommuting Law, which seeks to give employees from the private sector alternative workplace set-up with the help of technology.
While many employees can stay at home to dodge the traffic mess, there are jobs that require physical presence such as retail, construction, banks, and restaurants.
Jojo Recio, an HR manager at a construction firm, said their company Hilmarc's implemented a remote work arrangement for some of their employees when the pandemic struck. Now, employees are back on-site, with the help of free shuttle rides.
"Ang challenge kasi diyan, 'yung monitoring. How do you monitor the productivity, the output of every employee who is working from home?"
Their employees prefer working on-site than working from home, where establishing boundaries, juggling both house chores and work requirements, could be difficult, he said.
"Iba kasi 'yung environment mo sa bahay, at least dito sa office pagtapos nila ng 5 o'clock, they are free. Dito kapag break time nila, break time talaga nila," he told reportr.
There are also those who can't afford the higher electricity and internet connectivity costs of remote work, said Defend Jobs Philippines spokesperson Christian Lloyd Magsoy.
"Ang mas mainam pa rin, nandoon sila sa opisina, kailangan bumiyahe e ngayon sobrang konting public mass transportation, e hindi naman kaya ng mga workers natin na laging Grab o taxi," Magsoy told reportr.
"Sa dulo pa rin talaga, kailangan pa rin ayusin ng pamahalaan ang public mass transport," he said.
Big tech is leading the way to make remote work permanent. As early as May 2020, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told workers they could continue working from home even after the pandemic. Facebook allowed permanent remote work for those whose tasks could be done offsite.
Amazon and Google said its employees can work remotely two days a week even after the pandemic. Google said there would be roles that may need to be on-site due to the nature of their jobs.
Move as One Coalition, a group that advocates for safe and inclusive public transportation in the Philippines, offered several suggestions to improve public transport in a letter to Transportation Sec. Arthur Tugade.
These include increasing the number of bike parking in rail stations and allowing commuters to bring their two-wheeled conveyances on board trains, rehabilitate trains and increase the number of running coaches, and operate the EDSA Busway 24/7 with more stations. Solutions to traffic congestion must be "commuter-centric," the group said.
There's still time to meet the demand of post-pandemic mobility by focusing on infrastructure that addresses active transport such as bikes, Move as One said.
For now, Grab rider Imelda is on the hunt for other jobs which will give her work flexibility. Spending P1,000 a day for transportation is too expensive, especially for a breadwinner.
"Makakapagpabalik talaga sa akin [sa on-site work] if either may transpo allowance man lang at may contingency plan if ever may nag-[COVID] positive sa office."
If the traffic situation continues to worsen, Mendoza will leave his job. Only one thing will persuade him from coming back to on-site work.
"Taasan 'yung sahod."