Shiran Rosental, a 33-year-old from Ramat Gan, is now in her fourth month of pregnancy. After she gave birth to her first child a year and a half ago, she received a maternity allowance almost equivalent to her salary for almost four months. When the pandemic struck, she searched for work, but to no avail, and started to receive unemployment compensation from the government. She is expected to give birth again in May, but this time around, she will not receive her maternity allowance – and also expects to lose her right to unemployment benefits.
Haaretz has learned that thousands of women like Rosental, who are due to give birth in the next few months and were fired or furloughed during the coronavirus crisis, will lose their rights to maternity and unemployment payments when they give birth.
Women who have not worked since March will be ineligible for maternity allowances because the law limits such eligibility to a period of 10 months from the last day they worked. They will also not be entitled to unemployment compensation due to the Women's Employment Law, which forbids hiring a woman for the first 15 weeks of her maternity leave after childbirth. Because these women cannot be employed, they cannot be defined as “unemployed,” according to this law.
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The National Insurance Institute has drafted an amendment to the law, stipulating that women who give birth between January and June 2021 will be eligible for maternity allowances at the level of their salaries before they were fired or furloughed. The cost of the move is estimated at 140 million shekels ($44 million), and the National Insurance Institute Council and Labor Minister Itzik Shmuli approved the change.
While the Finance Ministry is willing to extend unemployment benefits to women after they give birth, the figure could be tens of percent lower than the maternity allowances they would have received under normal circumstances, and would cost the government an estimated 90 million shekels.
Discussions on the matter are ongoing, but without an agreement – which will also have to receive the approval of the Justice Ministry and the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee – women who give birth from January will be left without either source of income.
The director general of the National Insurance Institute, Meir Shpigler, said: “During the coronavirus crisis we have run into illogical situations in which according to existing laws, the basic social rights of certain groups have been harmed, and as long as the crisis continues, more of them are paying the price. Along the entire way the National Insurance Institute has been responsive to the public’s distress and has acted to guarantee that a proper response is provided to [the public’s] needs."
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He added, “The legislature has not considered the consequences of such an extreme crisis, and now this absurdity violates the fundamental right of a woman who gives birth to receive a maternity allowance, at a time when she needs it most."
Labor Minister Itzik Shmuli responded: "There is no intention to harm women and rob them of their entitlement to maternity and unemployment benefits. They should not have to pay the price of the economic crisis...I intend to work immediately with the National Insurance Institute to fix this grave injustice. "
With the dissolution of the Knesset, the transitional government is not authorized to approve the law. It will instead fall under the domain of the Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.
The Justice Ministry told Haaretz that “the proposed amendment on the part of the National Insurance Institute has a worthy and desirable aim.” The draft version of the amendment was provided to the Justice Ministry for its examination only on Wednesday morning, and the ministry said it is still in the process of “the required legal examination.”
Women’s organizations also voiced their concerns by writing to Finance Minister Yisrael Katz on Wednesday evening: “Maternity allowance is a basic right that women are entitled to, and for which they have paid national insurance payments. It is inconceivable that women who give birth over this time will find themselves without a livelihood during the period of birth and parenthood, at a time when they need it the most.”
Yaara Mann, the head of economics and social policy research at the Berl Katznelson Foundation, who studies women’s employment, said that “the attempt to save money at the expense of women who did not work during the coronavirus crisis is a new height of cynicism.”
Women have been especially hard-hit during the COVID-19 crisis and fired or furloughed at much higher rates than men, she added. “Instead of devoting time to formulating plans to restore women's employment and alleviating harm to the most vulnerable workers, the treasury is thinking about how to save another few shekels at the expense of these women.”