Tali Nir

A relief package that leaves far too many out in the cold

The Knesset's wartime aid plan leaves a large swath of workers, including hourly wage earners, at risk of immediate poverty
The crisis has already pushed more than 150,000 employees into unemployment or unpaid leave. (iStock)
The crisis has already pushed more than 150,000 employees into unemployment or unpaid leave. (iStock)

Tens of thousands of workers laid off as a result of the war were left out of the government aid program. This fact poses a moral and societal question: Can we, in good conscience, leave our fellow citizens to face economic hardships alone during times of national sorrow and loss? This question demands an urgent response, particularly when these individuals are struggling to cope with the uncertainties introduced into their lives by the war.

The Knesset’s recent passage of an economic relief package, though commendable, is insufficient. It extends compensation to some unemployed workers, but many are left without support. The war’s aftermath has forced numerous employers to cut back operations significantly, resulting in inevitable layoffs and reduced hours. A Central Bureau of Statistics survey from late November starkly illustrates the crisis: 36% of Israeli businesses reported at least a 50% drop in their November revenues, with a fifth expecting a decline of 75% or more.

The crisis has already pushed more than 150,000 employees into unemployment or unpaid leave, a number that may sadly rise. True, the government stepped back from the Finance Minister’s initial refusal of unemployment benefits and aid for workers – the current aid program guarantees unemployment benefits to those who were laid off or sent to unemployment after the outbreak of the war, but it fails to encompass everyone affected.

Several stipulations within Israeli law unfairly exclude many workers, notably those in hourly or shift-based jobs. Take the case of Danny, a gym instructor, whose story reflects the plight of many. With the onset of the conflict, Danny lost most of his shifts, resulting in over a 50% pay cut. He voices a deep existential fear: “I haven’t put in enough in the last month, and I have no idea how I will get through this period. I’m already in the red, and I don’t know how I’ll pay the rent for this month.” 

Like Danny, there are tens of thousands of other hourly workers in Israel. In fact, one out of every five employees works hourly shifts, in a wide variety of industries. In the fields of education and training, leisure and culture, sports, commerce and restaurants, as well as in the fields of nursing, cleaning and guarding. Many of these industries have been paralyzed since the outbreak of the war.

The employers hope to return to work, so the easy thing for them is to reduce the number of hours of these employees, and not fire them or put them on unemployment so that they can ramp output back up as soon as they need to. Workers don’t have many choices. These are relatively disadvantaged workers, whose wages are low and they have no other options, certainly not in this period. The government could supplement their wages, but they were left out of the aid program.

Outside of the government program, there are still many workers who were not fired, but also did not actually work and will not receive wages or compensation from the government for the period of their downtime. Such are, for example, people who could not (or still cannot) get to their place of work because it is not protected, and work is prohibited according to the directives of the Home Front Command. These are not synchronized with the aid program, and thus workers who have been disabled due to the security situation are left without their normal income. What message is the state sending them? that next time it is better that they ignore the security instructions and go to work?

Another example are single mothers, who had to stay with their children who are absent from school at home. According to the law, it is forbidden to fire them, but the employer is not obliged to pay them if they do not come to work. 

The solution should be straightforward: The State of Israel must extend financial assistance to every worker economically impacted by the war. The guiding principle should be clear: Anyone employed as of October 6, 2023, who suffered income loss due to the conflict, deserves state support until they can resume their job.

It is crucial to note that unemployment benefits, capped at around 70% of the last salary with a maximum of 11,800 NIS per month, do not fully compensate for lost wages. Hence, anyone laid off suffers financially. At the very least, this level of support should be guaranteed.

It is not too late for the government to address these shortcomings. Legislative amendments can be expedited when there’s a will to do so. Now, more than ever, it is imperative. We need to survive this war financially as well. each and every one of us. All families need to eat. In a time of uncertainty, grief and anxiety, we as a society must take care of at least this.

About the Author
Tali Nir is the CEO of 121- Israel’s leading NGO for advancing public policies for social change.