The calling of an early election creates uncertainty for lots of Israelis: young couples waiting for laws to lower home prices, sick people wondering if the long hospital waits will become a thing of the past, and parents curious about education reforms such as smaller classes and fewer matriculation exams.
But there’s a group for whom an early election is a moment of clarity – Knesset employees.
“On days when the plenum doesn’t meet, the workload is reduced by 90%,” says one Knesset worker. That workload is spread out among researchers, legal advisers, committee workers, ushers and many other employees.
So how does one fill the time during such a recess?
“The last time they sent us to upgrade the Knesset website, sort documents and go down to the archives and do all sorts of things . When the plenum is at work we work hard – sometimes we’re here until 2 A.M. during the budget discussions or when they want to close a bill before the end of a session,” the employee says.
But yes, during a recess there isn’t much to do, a problem that’s hard to solve. After all, they can’t fire everyone and bring them back after every election campaign.
“Still, I haven’t heard cries of joy over the moving up of the election. After all, you don’t want to be bored every day,” the employee says about the six-month dry spell that’s just beginning.
Either way, the money is good at Israel’s parliament. Justified by the separation of powers, the Knesset sets its own annual budget. The Finance Ministry, which oversees every budget item for the government ministries, has no power over the Knesset’s funding.
Rapidly rising job rolls
The Knesset’s annual budget is 613 million shekels ($155 million). There are 486 permanent employees and 58 temporary ones, while 61 students work there.
The Knesset’s salary costs in 2013 reached 144 million shekels, up 8 million shekels from the previous year, the Knesset says on its website. This also includes car expenses, overtime and training. It doesn’t include the 201 employees of the Knesset Guard and another eight temporary workers.
The Knesset Guard is also a well-paying gig — certainly compared with salaries for police officers and security guards around the country. Salaries approach 20,000 shekels a month. The total cost of salaries and benefits for the Knesset Guard was 52 million shekels in 2013. All told, salary costs for employees and the Guard make up 32% of the parliament’s budget.
Over the years the number of Knesset employees has grown rapidly. The legal department employs 40 people, up from seven 20 years ago. Some of this growth stems from the rise in the number of private members’ bills submitted by MKs, many of which are intended only for PR.
Despite the huge growth in manpower and the high-quality employees, the Knesset as an institution isn’t very efficient, certainly not compared to legislatures in countries such as the United states, says a source who works closely with the Knesset.
“In everything related to private bills, no in-depth preparatory work is done in cooperation with the employees in the committees, the legal department and the Research Center before a bill reaches committee,” the source says.
“MKs receive private members’ bills from the outside – from lobbyists or organizations – instead of working with the people at the Knesset’s various departments. After all, the manpower is there. Everyone works separately, and in the end they have a pretty superficial discussion. Very few MKs submit bills that have been prepared well.”
Keeping it secret
Still, Knesset employees enjoy salary conditions way above average in the public sector, especially for those without professional qualifications.
This means a secretary in a government office who receives 5,000 shekels a month must be jealous of her Knesset counterpart, who makes almost 10,000 shekels a month. On top of that, many Knesset workers are eligible for overtime and on-call pay, which comes in handy when the legislature meets until late at night.
The biggest beneficiaries are the more senior and veteran employees, whose wages are kept confidential and are not included in the annual report by the wages director at the Finance Ministry. The Knesset occasionally publishes its own report on the salaries of its top officials; the most recent report was for 2012.
It turns out that nine senior Knesset employees make more money than MKs. The highest paid in 2012 was the deputy legal adviser to the Knesset and the legal adviser to the Finance Committee, Eti Bendler, who made 56,096 shekels a month. Bendler’s salary is equivalent to that of a district court judge. It rises every year based on the increase in the average wage.
The second highest paid Knesset employee in 2012 was Miri Yachin, the head of the ceremonies and events division, with a monthly salary of 55,214 shekels. Yachin’s salary is linked to that of a police commander.
Then came the head of the Knesset Guard, Yosef Griff, at 53,000 shekels; his salary is linked to that of a police brigadier general. The Knesset legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, has his salary linked to the attorney general’s; both are linked to that of a Supreme Court justice.
“Why is there such linkage?” asks a former senior civil servant. “Because the Knesset always wanted to be like the government. So first of all it took care of salaries; that’s how they linked the salaries of the Knesset’s senior legal advisers to that of the attorney general. But the Knesset is far from working at the professional level of the government.”
A generous time clock
In any case, some Knesset employees can particularly profit from an early election: They have the chance to work for the Central Elections Committee. This has proved a real treat – working for the committee during the recess and seeing your salary jump by a double-digit percentage for doing two jobs.
After a state comptroller report in 2006 on the issue, this pleasure was limited to only a few employees who work for the Committee at the expense of their annual vacation days, says the Knesset spokesman.
And Knesset employees enjoy other benefits. Like civil servants, they receive 26 vacation days a year, but taking into consideration extra days in the spring and summer, and for the Passover and Sukkot holidays, the number can begin to approach 60 — though the Knesset spokesman denies this.
As for other benefits, 180 Knesset employees have cars leased by the parliament, for which they pay the standard “usage fee” set by the treasury – much less than the value of the car and the gas.
While they usually work 44-hour weeks, during recess and vacations they work only 35-hour weeks. They also enjoy special rules regarding their time clocks, which no other government employees have: If you’re late or leave early you still get full pay.
The official explanation is that the workers must endure long security checks entering the building, where there are always long lines — certainly at the start and end of the workweek. An employee once calculated that this rounding can reach 2,000 to 2,500 full workdays a year, when considering all the parliament’s employees.
Workers also enjoy professional training – usually at a very nice hotel — at the government’s expense. They get more days than civil servants get, and these aren’t vacation days. There are of course professional and educational trips abroad too – mostly for senior staff.
A clear measure of how good a place the Knesset is to work is how long employees remain. Almost no one leaves the Knesset of their own free will. “When I decided to leave, people told me – ‘You’re crazy, you only leave the Knesset on a stretcher,’” says a former employee.
For its part, the Knesset spokesman's office notes that the number of vacation days is similar to that for civil servants in general. But since Knesset employees can’t take vacations whenever they want when parliament is in session, they have a different arrangement – and the number of days never nears 60, it says.
“The Knesset is proud to be an excellent place to work, and a place where many employees fight to join,” the spokesman says.
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