Fearing Automization, Workers Delay Mental Health Hostel Funding Across Israel

Workers fear a new computerized system will make their work redundant.

A mental health hostel in Jerusalem, May 17, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Health Ministry employees have interfered with budget allocations to mental health hostels across the country in protest against the ministry’s intention to introduce a computerized system liable to cut their wages.

Consequently, hostels serving 15,000 charges are struggling to operate as usual. The funds were disbursed after heavy lobbying by hostel operators, who fear it will happen again this month.

The ministry spends 750 million ($196.5 million) annually to operate some 150 hostels and 7,000 closed housing facilities for thousands of mentally ill patients. The facilities provide nutrition, leisure activities and rehabilitation. Ministry employees refused to transfer the funds in recent months because of their fight. Hostel owners warn that continued disruptions will hurt rehab institution operations.

A new computerized system that is supposed to handle the management and transfer of funds from the Health Ministry to various bodies is at the center of the dispute. Workers fear the system will make some of their work redundant, reducing their wages. So, they refused to disburse funds until a permanent raise is promised to them.

Consequently, hostel and housing operators did not receive payments for services they have provided since January. Shaul Boaron, chairman of the forum of mental health hostel operators, asserts that Health Ministry workers “took the rehab patients hostage.” He said the freeze made it hard for hostel operators to pay their employees, the National Insurance Institute, the Income Tax Authority and VAT. Hostel owners turned to the ministry director-general and minister for help.

“We only received answers like it’s ‘being addressed’ or ‘being examined,’” said Boaron.

The ministry pays hostel operators after providing services. The crisis emerged in March, when the hostels only received partial payment for January.

Hostel operators wrote the ministry: “Payment for services rendered in January was delayed, and an advance of only half of March was paid, and only to some suppliers. Most suppliers have not received payment for services rendered in February. Reimbursements for leisure and trip expenses to pay for various rehab activities from six months ago are unpaid.” They warned, “In a situation with delayed payments, it is impossible to provide proper service, which mental health patients deserve.”

According to Boaron, they received an additional payment after service providers submitted the letter and lobbied. Hostel owners are now operating with uncertainty over payments for services they render daily. They stress that suppliers who provide other services to the Health Ministry, such as in geriatrics, receive payments regularly. “We understand the situation of ministry workers, whose salary is made up of various supplemental payments, and they say let them install the new system but not at the expense of their salaries, and are trying to lobby where they can. However, in the end it leads to hurting the rehab patients,” said Boaron.

Moti Levy, owner of Lev Hanegev, which operates several rehab and living facilities for the Health Ministry, said he could only pay employees the past four months by taking out a bridging loan. He had to postpone hikes and leisure activities.

“I have 40 workers, mostly part-time, like students and guides, who must be paid on the ninth of the month,” he said. “I am taking great pains not to hurt employees.”

Forum members say other institutions, whose employees are being paid late, are in even worse shape. “An employee who comes to work without knowing if he’ll be paid in the end does a poorer job, and residents are liable to notice,” warned Boaron. “Because of financial distress, there are places postponing and canceling trips and leisure activities for residents. It can’t be that there is money for trips and no money for salaries.”

The Health Ministry commented: “The ministry developed a computerized system for billing management in the field of rehabilitation of mental health patients that will improve service and control. The system will begin operating soon after delays caused by a labor dispute. The ministry will try its best to prevent delays in payment to suppliers. As of today, we do not know of any such delays.”

The ministry’s labor union declined to comment.