Israeli Municipality Fires 3 Mentally Disabled Employees, Gives Clock Instead of Severance Pay

'They didn't say anything to my daughter, I had to tell her,' recounts the mother of one of the women, who have all worked in city kindergartens for decades

Iris, a mentally disabled Israeli woman who was laid off from the kindergarten she worked in for decades, with the watch she received instead of severance pay.
Sasi Horesh

The Eilat municipality in recent years fired three developmentally disabled women who had worked in the city’s kindergartens for decades without giving them severance pay. It also denied them advance notice and a chance to appeal the decision, Haaretz has learned.

The women were employed through a project called “Integrating Disabled Women into Kindergartens.” But the municipality decided to end the project.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

The mother of one of the women said municipal officials told her the city couldn’t afford to pay the insurance on disabled workers.

The Eilat municipality said that even though the women received monthly paychecks, they were actually volunteers for whom helping in the kindergartens was therapeutic, and therefore weren’t entitled to severance pay. It did not respond to Haaretz’s questions about why they were fired.

The municipality recently reached a settlement with one woman who sued, paying her 50,000 shekels ($14,000) without admitting wrongdoing.

Haaretz spoke with the families of two of the three women, who worked in the kindergartens for 25 and 30 years, respectively.

“They didn’t say anything to my daughter – I had to tell her,” one mother said. “She thought she had behaved improperly, that they were angry with her. She wasn’t willing to leave the house for months because she was so sad.”

After Sara Ozen, who sued on behalf of her daughter Iris, complained about the dismissal to Eilat Mayor Yitzhak Halevi, he arranged an event to honor the women.

“He gave us a clock whose inscription said they appreciated her work,” she recalled. “I asked him what exactly he was celebrating, when these women whose whole world was the kindergarten were being fired because the municipality doesn’t want to pay insurance. Where is their humanity? We asked for severance pay, not a clock.”

Iris Ozen, 53, worked in the kindergarten from 1985 until her dismissal three years ago. She unlocked the gate before the children arrived and locked it after they left, played with them, organized games for them and watered the garden.

For the first 10 years, she was an unpaid volunteer. But then her mother demanded that she be paid, and the city started paying her 1,355 shekels a month. During her final year on the job, she was diagnosed with cancer. She missed several weeks of work due to her treatments, and when she returned, she had to rest more often during the day than she had before.

In 2015, the city’s human resources department summoned Sara Ozen to a meeting and told her that her daughter was being dismissed immediately, with no severance pay and no possibility of appeal. The reason the department gave was its inability to pay insurance for the disabled women.

“I took it very hard,” Iris Ozen said. “At first, I thought I’d done something bad at work. I remember things were good in the kindergarten. They liked me a lot. When I didn’t come to the kindergarten, they asked the teacher where I was. The parents also liked me a lot.

“They saw my differences,” she added. “It was fun to get up in the morning when I went to work. It was very good for me.”

A., whose daughter was fired from a different Eilat kindergarten, told a similar story. “For 25 years, the kindergarten was my daughter’s whole world,” she said. “Every morning she would go and do whatever they asked her. One morning, with no warning, they called and said she can’t come to the kindergarten anymore.”

A. said she was told the city no longer had a position for her daughter. “They acted as if they’d done us a favor by letting her work like that in the kindergarten,” she added. “We’re very angry. They didn’t do anyone a favor; they [the women] worked well for 20 years.”

Ozen’s suit, which argued that she and the municipality had an employee-employer relationship, accused the city of not paying her minimum wage and of firing her because of her disability.

“The attempt to depict the plaintiff as a ‘volunteer’ and her workplace as a ‘rehabilitative framework’ violates court rulings and doesn’t hold water,” said the suit, prepared by attorneys Hadas Holzstein-Tamir and Ron Derech of Hebrew University’s disability rights clinic. “Her activities benefited the kindergarten’s operations, made a significant contribution to the children and helped the teacher. The plaintiff was paid for her work – including during the summer, as all the other teachers were – and paid union dues.”

The city argued in response that due to Ozen’s developmental disabilities, “It’s clear that she couldn’t have worked as an [ordinary] kindergarten assistant. She needed support, supervision and emotional help from the kindergarten staff. The point of her integration wasn’t to obtain work from her, but to provide her with a supportive rehabilitative framework, due to a broad social vision.”

The city added that it paid her a stipend based on the minimum wage for years “without any legal obligation,” and continued doing so even though she stopped coming to work regularly during the last two years because of her illness.

Derech retorted that Ozen “was an inseparable part of the kindergarten and performed many and varied tasks that were useful to the kindergarten, many of them independently.” Even if the municipality’s original intentions in employing her were good, he added, it should have started treating her as an employee after new legislation was enacted more than a decade ago.

The municipality said it strove for years to integrate people with disabilities into various frameworks, even before legislation was passed on this issue, in light of the city’s distance from the rest of the country “and a desire to provide service to the community.” It even found the plaintiff an alternative position in a local community center as part of a Social Affairs Ministry project, it added.

Nevertheless, it said, she was never hired as an employee and was never on the city’s staff list, and it accepted the settlement suggested by the labor court “out of consideration for the plaintiff’s feelings, subject to the fact that the settlement was not an admission of the plaintiff’s claims.”