Israeli Social Workers Overwhelmed as Welfare Applications Skyrocket Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A protest march by social workers in Holon, central Israel, June 24, 2020.
A protest march by social workers in Holon, central Israel, June 24, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toga
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The steep rise in unemployment and pressure within families due to the coronavirus shutdown is stretching social services in Israel to their limit, and on Thursday hundreds of demonstrated in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.

In the first three weeks of June, 4,892 new case files were opened with municipal social service offices, compared to 2,919 in the equivalent period of 2019, according to figures issued by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.

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Ministry officials expect case numbers to rise even further as people’s unemployment benefits expire and they become eligible for welfare benefits only, which are much lower.

According to an analysis conducted by the ministry in 63 communities, in April each social worker had an average caseload exceeding 300 households – over 1,500 individuals on average. The most recent figures place Tel Sheva, a Bedouin community outside Be’er Sheva, at the top of the caseload ladder, with one social worker for every 758 clients. In second and third places, respectively, are the Negev Bedouin communities of Rahat and Lakiya, with 699 and 599 clients for each social worker.

Most of the communities with the highest caseloads are either Arab or Haredi. In the ultra-Orthodox communities of Rechesim, Elad, Betar Ilit, and Modi’in Ilit, the average caseload is, respectively, 544, 368, 375 and 341 clients. A number of high-income communities share the “honor” of high average social-worker caseloads, including Meitar (364), Omer (374) and Zichron Ya’akov (456).

Marching for social services

Social workers on Wednesday kicked off a two-day march from Tel Aviv to the Finance Ministry and Knesset to draw attention to what they described as the collapse of the country’s social services.

Leading protesters in Jerusalem on Thursday, the chairwoman of the Israel Union of Social Workers, Inbal Hermoni, said they "did everything to avoid shutting down social services in Israel, but no one in the Knesset or the Finance Ministry seems to care."

A homeless person is seen leaning on a street curb as people with masks and gloves walk past, March 26, 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

She said that if their demands are not met within 11 days, the social workers will launch a strike shutting down all social services in the country. "We do it with a heavy heart," Hermoni said. 

The social workers say the flood of new applications for services after the end of the countrywide lockdown in early May overwhelmed an already overloaded, underfunded system.

The social workers are demanding a supplement of hundreds of millions of shekels to the national social services budget for a post-shutdown emergency program. They are asking for some 150 million shekels ($43.7 million) for a program aimed at protecting social workers from assault by clients or family members, an immediate, significant raise in pay and benefits; accelerated negotiations toward wide-reaching changes to the salary structure; the exclusion of social services from any across-the-board budget cuts, and an increase in social services allocations in the 2021-22 state budget to address the consequences of the coronavirus crisis.

Around 24,000 social workers, 89 percent of them female, are employed in Israel. Despite high demand for social workers, three out of every four people working in the profession qualifies for welfare benefits to reach minimum wage. More than half the country’s social workers are employed part-time – while doing the work of a full-time employee – due to the Finance Ministry’s underfunding of local governments.

Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Minister Itzik Shmuli met with the marchers in Beit Shemesh Wednesday morning to demonstrate solidarity with the social workers. “From the moment the lockdown ended, thousands of Israelis registered with welfare departments to request aid,” Shmuli said. “That increases the load on the social workers, which is intolerably high even during normal times. The march of the social workers is a march for Israeli society as a whole. I support their struggle and will rally to their side in the cabinet and everywhere in their struggle for their status, their safety and the improvement of their working conditions,” he added.

Pedestrians wearing masks are seen in Tel Aviv, May 21, 2020.Credit: Eyal Toga

Beit Shemesh Mayor Aliza Bloch also joined the marchers in her city Wednesday, saying, “Education and social-services employees must receive the highest salaries. You do the work whose results are seen many years later. ... You affect Israel’s economic balance. I salute you and thank you. Your fight is just and we stand beside you,” Bloch said.

A social worker was assaulted by a relative of a client Wednesday, and a second was threatened by the adult son of a client.

A female relative of a social-services client who is in the process of being assigned to a legal guardian assaulted the client’s social worker in a Jerusalem courtroom. The relative allegedly shoved the social worker and threatened to hurt her. A police complaint against the suspect will be submitted Thursday.

In the second incident, in Bat Yam, the son of an elderly woman, who lives with her, allegedly threatened to murder his mother’s social worker and prevented her from treating his mother. A police complaint was submitted. The incident was the fourth involving a social worker in Bat Yam over the past month.

Aaron Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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