Nearshore Americas

Protocols, Policies and Bio-Security: Central America Grapples with a New Normal

Nearshore businesses with operations in Central America have been doing their best to protect workers amid the ongoing spike in Covid-19 cases across the region. Each country has responded to the pandemic is its own way, and companies have had to adapt to a broad range of new government regulations aimed at keeping infections down.

Craig Dempsey, the managing director of Biz Latin Hub, a back-office services provider, has outlined the regulations in the region. Read on for a detailed review of current conditions in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and Guatemala.

El Salvador

El Salvador has documented more than 18,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases. The death toll from Covid-19 has reached 486. Dempsey said El Salvador will return to more open economic activities in five phases. The recovery plan began on June 16.

The phases are outlined as follows:

Phase 1: Essential services like the construction sector, pharmaceuticals, hospitals and restaurants (delivery only) will reopen.
Phase 2: Professional services, public transport and call centers will reopen.
Phase 3: Small businesses, churches, gyms and mall centers will reopen.
Phase 4:  Theaters and cinemas, tourism centers and museums will reopen.
Phase 5: Concerts and carnivals will be permitted.

Jessica Bukele, a consultant with Offshore Business Services Investment Advisor (Proesa), told Nearshore Americas that the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector in El Salvador was growing rapidly before Covid-19. Around 80 companies are currently operating in the country, employing around 30,000 agents. Although the country was slated for a phase two reopening in July, that was cancelled because the number of cases continues to rise.

Jessica Bukele, BPO consultant, El Salvador

“We are seeing about 300 new infections daily,” Bukele said. “Sixty to 90% of agents… now work from home because of the health regulations, except for those who work in accounts which are PCI compliant or deal with sensitive information such as credit cards,”

The largest call centers in El Salvador include Concentrix, Teleperformance, Telus International, Sykes and Atento. The centers that are open mandate the use of masks and keep workers three meters apart. Alcohol gel is made available for personal use and buildings are cleaned twice daily. Most centers have glass partitions and require that workers sit on alternate seats, rather than side-by-side.

“Phase two reopening was projected to start on July 21 in El Salvador, but the government indicates we need to flatten the curve,” Bukele said. “The reintroduction of public transportation was slated for phase two… That, too, has been put off.”

Costa Rica

Dempsey said Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health had issued a number of guidelines for private companies in the country. Using these guidelines, companies must independently develop their own protocols to prevent contamination and help identify possible Covid-19 cases.

Failure to comply with health guidelines can lead to penalties such as suspension of operating permits, so due compliance is vital. Companies must meet the following requirements:

1. People with cold or flu symptoms are prohibited from entering workplaces.
2. Independent company protocols should include regular hand hygiene measures, monitoring temperatures of employees entering the workplace, mandatory use of face masks and decisive preventative and/or medical action for those who have recently returned from travel and/or who are displaying symptoms.
3. Teleworking must be implemented in all possible cases. There must be a plan of action in the presence of a suspected or confirmed case of Covid-19.
4. Companies need to have an internal communication mechanism to keep all officials, clients or members updated on any modification of the internal or general regulations.

Gabriela Martínez of Central Gate, the official Association of High Tech Service Providers in Costa Rica, said the country has implemented social distancing and quarantine measures following the exacerbation of the pandemic.

Auxis said employees in the US and Costa Rica had been operating under a WFH model since the middle of March, with no reported cases among the teams.  The company has re-opened its offices in Heredia but is still restricting visitor access and has deployed strict health and safety protocols. Protocols include specific cleaning procedures, capacity restrictions, social distancing mandates, temperature checks and wellness/exposure certification procedures.

Hanna Retana, business developer for Bosch in Costa Rica, said her company had also adapted to the recommendations outlined by the Costa Rican Health Ministry. Bosch Service Solutions sought to relocate its 250-person workforce to a home-office modality, achieving a migration of 100% of agents within three weeks (mid-March to early-April), without any major impacts to operations or service levels.

Ex2 Outcoding also said the company had transitioned to WFH, with all meetings held virtually. The company has developed a comprehensive set of hygiene and cleaning guidelines in preparation for a return to the company’s physical site.

Novacomp Costa Rica reports that clients are no longer as skeptical of remote work. Covid-19 has highlighted major challenges for the company and its clients, it said, including how manual processes represent a risk factor. The company has been able to develop solutions to address these with clients.

Sykes Costa Rica initiated its planning for Covid-19 on February 28, creating a risk matrix and moving on to source cleaning materials and prepare for WFH. The business continuity plan was completed by March 19.

Honduras

According to Biz Latin Hub, Honduras will gradually reopen certain economic activities by regions and in phases, with a period of two weeks between each phase, starting June 6. Regional categories are identified as follows:

  • Region 1: Areas with a low number of cases and low population density. Commercial activities will reopen at 60% capacity, then move to 80% and finally 100%.
  • Region 2: Areas with a higher frequency of cases and ‘medium’ population density. Commercial activities will reopen at 40% capacity, then move to 60%, then 80% and finally 100%.
  • Region 3: Areas with the highest numbers of cases and medium-high population density. Commercial activities will reopen at 20% capacity, then move to 40%, then 60%, 80% and finally 100%.

Due to the high potential for contagion, the following sectors are closed until further announcement: public transport, mall centers, restaurants (home deliveries available), universities and schools, cinemas, concerts and sports events.

Essential workers are required to wear a face mask, maintain a meter of social distance and use sanitizer gel or soap.

Teresa Maria Deras, BPO consultant and a lead executive with the Honduras investment agency, FIDE, told Nearshore Americas that call centers and outsourcing firms have received government approval to keep working.

Some companies have activated WFH contigency plans, but others retain workers in call centers. “There are some call centers here in Tegucigalpa who say they are challenged by all the laws of social distancing. Some have implemented them while some WFH,” Deras explained.

Companies which have secured special permission to operate from their centers remain in operation. Workers have been allowed to take chairs home in some companies.

Under Covid-19, Deras said, some companies have seen reduced volumes. “The problem somehow is that they are not getting as many contracts from abroad as they used to. Some of the services they provide are for TV sets and people are not buying new ones. So, the level of technical support needed has fallen. There appears to be a world-wide fall in demand.”

Nicaragua

Dempsey said the Nicaraguan government is aiming to control the virus by sanitizing public spaces, while allowing economic activities to continue operating normally. Controversially, the government refused to implement a lock-down period or urge companies to close. Those businesses that decided to close typically did so due to low economic movement and to avoid putting staff at risk.

Business places in operation are required to follow protocols including:

1. The wearing of face masks.
2. Maintaining a social distance of 1 meter.
3. Use of sanitizer gel or soap.
4. Avoiding physical contact.
5. Sanitization of objects and personal workspaces.

“Ibex took an early, more proactive and thorough approach to the safety of our employees,” said Bob Dechant, chief executive officer of Ibex. Dechant told Nearshore Americas that the company has met all Nicaraguan government regulations.

IBEX Global Bob Dechant
Bob Dechant, CEO Ibex Global

“Our multiple locations in Managua, Nicaragua, have been doing well during this pandemic because of the measures we put in place early,” Dechant said. “Ibex enacted safety protocols and have been practicing social distancing, mandatory mask wearing and sanitation protocols for the past few months. We also have created a private clinic for our employees where they can see a doctor… The clinic has been very successful and is completely paid for by Ibex.”

Dechant said the company will continue to keep preventative measures in place until the numbers decrease in-country. “The safety and well-being of our employees is our primary concern,” he concluded.

Panama

Dempsey said that all companies in Panama must create a special committee to monitor the health of their workers during the pandemic. This committee consists of two to six workers, depending on the size of the company. The aim is to establish and regularly update procedures to detect cases, implement an approved procedure and communicate with health authorities. The committee is also charged with organizing regular tests, offering training to employees, contact tracing and providing protective equipment.

Each company must plan and implement prevention measures and general controls for workers, employers, customers, suppliers and visitors. Control regulations for workers include:

1. Hand hygiene measures (soap and/or sanitizer gel).
2. Wearing a face mask.
3. Maintaining social distance of at least 2 meters.
4. Wearing personal protective equipment according to the activity and risk of the job.
5. Cleaning and disinfecting areas and surfaces frequently.
6. Implementing thorough waste management practices.
7. Establishing special shift hours and restrictions for employees at work to comply with physical distance requirements.
8. Adhering to teleworking recommendations where possible.
9. Monitoring symptoms of staff and all workplace visitors (such as partners and clients).

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Companies are also encouraged to pay attention to the management of work stresses during this time.

Although Nearshore Americas reached out to the Ministry of Commerce in Panama for information on their Covid-19 response, they have not responded to the request.

Guatemala

Dempsey said that contact centers and BPOs have remained open throughout the pandemic in Guatemala. In order to operate, these companies must draft an operational plan that fulfils the requirements outlined in Decree 6-2020 and Decree 7-2020. This plan must detail the bio-security protocols for the workplace.

The Ministry of Labor is closely monitoring compliance with plans and protocols in the workplace through regular inspections. Several contact centers have been suspended for not being compliant, according to Biz Latin Hub.

The BPO industry in Guatemala comprises of 20 companies, according to Natalia Samayoa, a project analyst with national competition agency Pronacom. These companies include Alorica, Telus International, HCL, Nearsol and Conduent.

Following a lockdown implemented by the government in March, about 70% of the workforce migrated to WFH. The remainder are now operating from centers. Guatemala has recorded more than 52,000 Covid-19 cases. Public transport has been banned, expect for on Saturdays between 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. Companies are responsible providing their workers with transportation.

Natalia Samayoa, project analyst with Pronacom

Some companies, Samayoa said, have been exempted from the curfew because specific accounts do not allow WFH. “We are introducing finishing schools to increase English language speakers for the industry. We are experiencing growth despite the pandemic,” she said.

Providing remote-working agents with internet services has led to additional costs at some companies.

Social distancing rules have changed as the pandemic progressed. “The sector… has had to adapt to the requirements of the government regarding social distancing and hygiene. Before there were five square meters between agents. Now it has to be 10 meters.”

Companies are now planning to go back to work in phases. “The sector has been very resilient,” said Samayoa. “They have been attracting new clients and new accounts.” The industry has generated 3,000 additional jobs since March.

Avia Ustanny-Collinder

Avia Ustanny-Collinder is a senior editor at Nearshore Americas and an award-winning business journalist residing in St. Catherine, Jamaica.

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