Liberman shuts spigot on pandemic jobless benefits to coax country back to work

Finance minister says move meant to address the large number of unfilled positions; certain benefits will still remain in place

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours the Hacarmel Market in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman tours the Hacarmel Market in Tel Aviv on November 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel’s new government is doing away with a worker furlough program at the end of the month, as employers look to fill positions reportedly left vacant by young Israelis remaining on the state’s dole.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman announced the decision Tuesday, despite an uptick in COVID case numbers, the result of a fast-spreading coronavirus variant, which has sparked fears the pandemic may not be over.

The Finance Ministry said on June 1 that it would end benefits for those under the age of 28 with no children. Liberman’s announcement, made on Twitter, indicated that the furlough program would be scrapped altogether, though he said a series of new measures would be needed to soften the blow for those in need.

“Unemployment benefits for those placed on leave will go back to being according to the standards before the coronavirus,” he said in a tweet.

According to Liberman, who became finance minister last week, the move will help fill some 130,000 unfilled positions, as the economy has roared back to life with the near eradication of the coronavirus. The measure must be approved by the Knesset.

Recent economic data has indicated that many young Israelis are not going back to work, choosing to continue receiving state benefits instead.

Israelis sit a cafe in Jerusalem’s city center, on April 21, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Central Bureau of Statistics announced last week that there were 133,000 job vacancies in May, the highest number since statistics began being kept in 2009.

In the food and hospitality industry, 17.3% of shifts went unfilled, the bureau said.

According to the Globes daily, there were 100,000 vacancies before the pandemic.

Head of the Israel Beyteinu party Avigdor Liberman speaks to Israelis around Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, as Israelis go to vote in the general elections, on March 23, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

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 published Monday.

Liberman said special grants made available for returning low-wage workers would now be available to those who return to work by the end of June, extending it beyond the previous deadline of April 30. The monthly grants are intended to help employers in the food and service industry lure back low-paid workers.

“The end of paid leave is a first necessary step in exiting the crisis,” said manufacturers association head Ron Tomer, praising the move. “There are 100,000 openings with fair pay just waiting for people to fill them. The Israeli economy will be more stable starting next month, with Israeli taxpayers no longer propping up people who don’t work.”

Closed down cafes and restaurants in Tel Aviv, on September 22, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Under the program, those over the age of 45 will still be entitled to half of the benefits they had received during the pandemic until the end of 2021.

Liberman also said that rules mandating that a worker must have been employed for six out of the last 18 months to receive unemployment benefits would be dropped until October, after which it will go up to 10 out of the last 18 months until the end of the year. Before the pandemic, laid off employees must have worked for 12 out of the last 18 months to receive benefits.

While the tourism industry has yet to recover from the pandemic, and with most tourists still needing special permission to enter into the country, Liberman offered that out-of-work tour guides could help teach summer school programs.

The proposal drew fire from fair-wage groups and other activists.

“Liberman’s proposal will badly hurt hundreds of thousands of unemployed [people] who want to work but cannot find jobs,” a coalition of 34 socioeconomic-activist groups said in a statement. “The government is not offering them professional training or other employment help, but is abandoning them without any unemployment benefits or aid.”

Liberman’s announcement came as the country began to see a minor surge in new coronavirus cases, with officials vowing to take steps to clamp down on the virus.

Israel has completely reopened its economy in the last few months, after high vaccination rates brought case numbers down to near zero.

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