The government is looking at a new program to allow public sector employees to work at home one day a week, and to provide incentives to encourage the private sector to follow suit.
Broadcaster and environmental activist turned lawmaker Miki Haimovich, who introduced Meatless Mondays to Israel, is using her position as the new chair of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee to push for the plan.
Implementing such a program for the public sector alone would not only bring environmental benefits, but could save the state NIS 850 million ($242 million) annually, the committee heard during its first meeting on Monday.
The Civil Service Commission, responsible for civil servants’ employment, said that a pilot project for working home one day a week, as well as staggering arrival times at workplaces to relieve traffic congestion, would be ready within months.
Ori Sharon, deputy director of the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, told the committee that working a day a week at home would help to cut transportation needs and air pollution, increase productivity, save employers money and help those — such as residents of the geographic periphery, single parents, and disabled individuals — who find it harder to commute on a daily basis.
He cited a report, compiled together with his organization and the transport and environmental protection ministries — written prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but only published (in Hebrew) in late April — which estimated that allowing all public sector workers to work from home for one day a week could save the economy NIS 850 million annually. The report also estimated damage to the economy from road congestion at NIS 35 billion ($9.98 billion) a year, a figure expected to triple by 2040.
Having seen the success of working from home during the coronavirus crisis, many countries were now designing policies for distance working, Sharon noted. In Israel, such a program would require the extension of high quality internet connections to rural areas as well as moves to open up neighborhood facilities, such as libraries or spaces in neighborhood shopping centers, where people unable to work from home could set up their computers.
Aviad Schwartz, employment coordinator at the Finance Ministry’s Budgets Division, said he and colleagues were examining whether there were regulatory obstacles to working from home. One issue that needed resolving, for example, was work injury insurance, given that it was harder to prove that accidents at home were related to work.
Shay Soffer, the Transport Ministry’s Chief Scientist, added that working at home one day a week would also reduce traffic accidents and save lives. “Over the past three months [during the coronavirus lockdown], we haven’t seen any reduction in work output by the ministry — on the contrary,” he said. “From our point of view, it’s the need of the hour.”
He cited Finland as an example of a country that operates successfully on the basis of flexible hours.
The issue of work from home was one of four subjects that Haimovich chose for the meeting, headlined “Coronavirus and the economy,” because of their economic benefits and relative ease of implementation.
An intense 90 minutes session saw her summoning and questioning around 20 ministry officials and external experts who either sat physically in the room, each separated by plastic partitions, or broadcast via Zoom.
The second subject was polluting fossil fuel industries and the need, as Haimovich expressed it, to exploit government investment to restart the economy by moving towards more renewable energy.
On Monday, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz also announced that Israel would be raising its renewable energy targets for 2030 from 17 percent to 30%.
Yechezkel Lifshitz, deputy director for energy at the Energy Ministry, said the ministry was finalizing a program on energy efficiency that included encouraging work from home. On renewable energy, he revealed that the state lottery, Mifal Hapayis, had agreed to extend low interest loans to local authorities to erect solar energy panels on the roofs of municipal buildings. Some 140 councils would be doing so in the coming year, providing 120 MW of power, he said.
Haimovich noted, however, that the government was also strongly supporting natural gas power stations that would tie Israel to fossil fuel for decades. She asked for a report on implementation of steps to train people for the renewable energy industry.
The third subject was environmental regulation — a controversial issue in light of work by the Prime Minister’s Office to streamline environmental regulations and fears that this could water down the Environmental Protection Ministry’s authority, particularly on air pollution, and to force it to weigh economic considerations in its decision-making.
Haimovich summoned Oren Cohen, who heads the PMO’s team on the subject. Cohen insisted that the office had no intention of changing science-based regulations, lacking the knowledge to tamper with them, but that it did intend to streamline bureaucracy. The process of applying for permits was inefficient and caused uncertainty, he said. In one case, a factory had to request 14 different permits in a single year that could, and should, have been brought together in a single process that would also make enforcement easier.
Prof. Oren Perez, head of Bar Ilan University’s Law Faculty, called for an increase in environmental regulation, saying that Israel had one of the highest population densities of all developed countries, a fact that puts immense pressure on natural resources. He said that there was plenty of world research that showed the high environmental and public health costs of pollution. It would be wrong to look for short-term ways to help industry by relaxing regulations, he stressed.
Speaking about the fourth subject of the meeting, investment, Prof. Nathan Sussman, a senior economist working with Project Israel 2050, a cooperative venture led by the Israel Democracy Institute and the Environmental Protection Ministry, insisted that all coronavirus-related financial help to companies be conditioned upon steps toward increasing energy efficiency.
Investment in infrastructure to kick-start the economy had to be directed toward sustainable infrastructure that would boost local employment and industry and help take the economy out of recession, he said. Initiatives such as building cycling paths or city recycling plants would provide many jobs and some of the funds earmarked for reemployment should be focused on retraining people for green jobs who have lost work in sectors that do not have a long term future.