The Knesset on Thursday gave final approval to sweeping changes to unemployment benefits that have been paid out to those who lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The legislation — which came as special regulations that had continued payments to furloughed workers expired — passed 35-0, after opposition MKs staged a walkout in protest of a coalition MK casting two votes in what he said was a mistake.
The session was briefly interrupted after Yamina MK Abir Kara voted twice against an opposition-proposed objection to the law, drawing a furious response from the opposition.
Kara immediately acknowledged he also voted from the computer of his colleague, coalition whip Idit Silman of Yamina, but said it was a mistake. Silman said she did not ask Kara to vote on her behalf. The opposition’s amendment had been defeated by a wide margin, 44-20.
The opposition, however, accused Kara of breaking the law and demanded the debate be halted until legal officials could be consulted. Likud’s Amir Ohana further demanded that Kara’s votes from the past two weeks be examined retroactively. Opposition MKs then pledged to boycott the vote until the matter was probed.
The Knesset’s legal adviser ordered a revote on the amendment, which was again struck down. After that, the legislation itself was approved in its second and third readings, passing it into law.
Under the new plan, unanimously approved the night before by members of the Knesset Finance Committee, only those over the age of 45 will continue to receive payments, which will henceforth be lower and will continue until mid-October. Those over the age of 67 who were forced out of their jobs by the COVID-19 crisis will likewise continue to receive a reduced payment, until the end of September.
In addition, expectant mothers will have protection against layoffs until the end of the year. Women who gave birth in recent months and are still entitled to unemployment benefits will be paid at a rate matching their last paid salary, an increase from the regular stipend they have received thus far.
National Insurance Institute director-general Meir Spiegler told Channel 12 news that the proposed plan “is balanced, gradual and provides a solution for quite a few populations that have fallen into crisis and have not yet found the ability to enter the labor market.”
“This framework is not a perfect framework,” he said, but it “provides the maximum response to populations that are genuinely in trouble and that currently have no solution.”
Spiegler noted that a deadline had been set in August last year, when the government decided to extend the period during which it would pay out special stipends that were introduced because of the virus crisis.
“People knew that on June 30 the reliefs expire,” Spiegler said.
He acknowledged that further consideration should be given to industries that have not yet returned to full or partial activity.
Last year, some NIS 39 billion ($12 billion) was paid out to over a million Israelis who either lost their jobs outright or were put on unpaid leave, according to Channel 12.
Israel has largely lifted restrictions on public life that were introduced to curb the virus spread but that also shuttered many businesses. Despite employers reopening their doors, many workers, notably in the catering and restaurant industry, have reportedly chosen to not return, preferring instead to keep getting state-provided unemployment benefits.
Last week, newly appointed Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman warned that he was cutting off cash to many who had received stipends during the last year.
“Unemployment benefits for those placed on leave will go back to being according to the standards before the coronavirus,” he wrote in a tweet.
According to Liberman, who became finance minister last month, the move would help fill some 130,000 unfilled positions, as the economy has roared back to life with the near eradication of the coronavirus, although there has recently been a small-scale resurgence of cases. The measure must be approved by the Knesset.
The Central Bureau of Statistics announced last month that there were 133,000 job vacancies in May, the highest number since statistics began being kept in 2009.
Meanwhile, unemployment in May rose from 203,700 to 209,300. However, the number of people missing work due to the coronavirus fell from 118,900 in April to 69,800 in May, according to CBS figures.