Jobless Israelis Over 67 Face Crisis as Coronavirus Grants Set to End

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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People wearing masks walk in Jerusalem, April.
People wearing masks walk in Jerusalem, April.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

“Until a month ago, I was going to job interviews. But when they heard how old I was, they would say to me, ‘We'll get back to you.’ I’ve been at home for more than a year and no one has gotten back to me.”

Zehava Gutman, from Kiryat Ata, had been working in the cosmetics department at a Super Pharm until the outbreak of the coronavirus. Like the rest of her colleagues, she was put on unpaid leave and eight months later fired outright. Since then, she has been looking for work – almost any kind of work – but hasn’t succeeded in returning to the labor market.

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On Wednesday, she suffered another blow after the Finance Ministry announced that assistance that was being given to unemployed workers aged 67 and over would be over at the end of June. “I haven’t been sleeping for days. … I don’t have a pension from anywhere. I live off National Insurance old-age and widow’s allowances. How can I manage just with that? Just for the medicines I take, it’s 4,000 shekels [$1,230]. I’m over age 69 and I have no one to support me. We’ve gotten to such a difficult situation that children need to support their parents. It’s painful.”

In April 2020, the government offered people aged 67 and over, who had been fired or put on unpaid leave due to the coronavirus, eligibility for what was called an adaptation grant. To qualify, the person had to be a citizen of Israel, have worked at least three months at their previous job and have stopped working for at least 30 days. The allowance, which ranges from 2,000 to 4,000 shekels a month, was tied to the recipient’s pension income. As of May, according to National Insurance Institute figures, 22,808 people were eligible, down from a peak of 43,000.

The NII had to overcome treasury opposition to the grant program from the start and says it will keep fighting to keep it from being shut down. The treasury, for its part, says that even if the program is ending, the target population will continue to get the old-age allowances and pension they have always received. In any case, it found that many recipients would have retired from their jobs in the last year with or without the coronavirus.

“We’re talking about a grant that hadn’t existed before, so all we’re doing is returning to the situation pre-COVID,” a treasury source told Haaretz. “We can talk about increasing the old-age allowance so that these people can continue to live in dignity, but that’s another story.”

The NII sees it differently. “These people were working before the coronavirus crisis. They didn’t leave their jobs because they wanted to – they left because they were forced to and now they can’t find work,” Meir Shpigler, the NII’s director general, told Haaretz.

“Who are these 67-plus people? It’s people who don’t have pensions or have such small pensions that they are forced to work. No one at that age wants to go out and work and be a security guard sitting in the sun, or a babysitter,” he said.

Shpigler plans to take the issue to the Knesset Finance Committee next week, where he will propose that the grant be extended until the High Holidays in September. In line with the decline in benefits being paid to people on unpaid leave, the grants would be cut in July to 90 percent of what a recipient gets now, 75 percent in August and 5 percent in September.

Esther Dashberg, a 77-year-old Rehovot resident, agrees with Shpiger. She was put on unpaid leave in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, and since then has only worked for a few weeks last July.

“Who would take a job proctoring exams? It is a boring job and a waste of time, but what else can you do if you need a few pennies,” she said. “It’s true that there were no grants like this two years ago, but back then I was working. For much of my life I was raising children and didn’t work, so I didn’t accumulate a pension. Now, I’m struggling to keep my head above water. The water is already close to my chin.”

In response to this report, Welfare Minister Meir Cohen told Kan Bet radio on Thursday morning that his ministry is working on extending the financial assistance. He met with the National Insurance Institute on Wednesday, and on Sunday they will meet with the treasury on the matter. "There's good will towards fixing this thing and extending it, and that's how it'll be," he said. 

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