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Hundreds of Be'er Sheva residents wanting to speak with National Insurance Institute representatives yesterday were stopped at the door by signs that read "The workers are on strike until further notice."

The NII employees have cited overcrowded facilities, noxious odors and acoustic problems that make it difficult to serve the public. After meeting with the management, however, they agreed to suspend any strike activities for a week, pending a response to the building's problems, said Ariella Alon, who heads the NII workers committee in Be'er Sheva.

Part of the issue at hand relates to the insurance institute's move to a new building, after a Haaretz report last September revealed the NII was paying NIS 141,666 a month for a building it was not using. Following the report, the institute designated the building as a branch for receiving the public - but only the first floor is being used, even though the second floor is furnished and equipped with computers.

"The National Insurance Institute has 1,500 square meters in the building, and they decided to squeeze all the public reception into 750 square meters," said Alon. "For six hours every day, 2,800 members of the population come in, it gets terribly crowded, the acoustics are awful, the workers can't hear the people, there are horrible smells that we can't explain and the workers have been suffering from dizziness and nausea since we moved to the new location."

The workers committee asked the management to address these problems several times, but to no avail, said Alon.

"We're unable to provide good service because of these problems," she said. "We suggested to the management that they receive some members of the public on the second floor, which is empty and paid for by taxpayers. It's ready and equipped, but our requests didn't help."

The workers committee wanted a Histadrut labor federation representative to attend one of their meetings on Thursday, but the NII branch manager threatened the workers with a disciplinary hearing if they attended, Alon said. The workers decided to launch a strike instead.

The NII said the branch manager viewed the meeting as illegal and inappropriate because it had not been coordinated with him.

The National Insurance Institute released the following statement: "The workers committee raised their claims on various topics, regarding everything related to the problems at the branch to which some workers have moved. It was agreed that the matters raised in the meeting would be dealt with quickly, and the workers were presented with a timetable for fixing the problems they raised - including building acoustic walls and dividers to lessen the acoustic problems."