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Social workers plan strike as study shows 54% have experienced physical violence

On Social Work Day 2021, new statistics illustrate deteriorating conditions of social services wrought by COVID-19, including understaffing, underpay and exposure to violence

A demonstrator holds a sign reading 'we deserve fair pay' outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem during a protest for the social workers on July 14, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Courtesy Israel Social Workers' Union)
A demonstrator holds a sign reading 'we deserve fair pay' outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem during a protest for the social workers on July 14, 2020 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Courtesy Israel Social Workers' Union)

Employees will shut down the Welfare Ministry for a few hours as a “warning strike” this Sunday, as a new study exposed how the coronavirus pandemic has worsened work conditions for social workers, with more than half of them saying they have experienced physical violence.

A new study by the University of Ben Gurion, published on Tuesday, a year after the outbreak of the coronavirus, reflected a collapse in the condition of Israel’s social services. A spike in demand for services, coupled with worsening social and economic conditions, has left the social service sector depleted and social workers underpaid and overworked.

Social workers reported staff and service cuts, underpayment, uncompensated overtime work, as well as exposure to violence and harassment.

The study, led by researcher Dr. Talia Meital Schwartz-Tayri, showed that social workers are unable to provide quality service due to insufficient resources, time constraints, and fatigue. Half of social workers said there was an emphasis on short-term goals and urgent cases; 40% noted that waiting times were too long for necessary services; and 77% reported that they have been working overtime without pay to ensure applicants receive assistance.

Additionally, 83% of social workers reported that they cannot finish their work during working hours, and are forced to “take” their work home, leading 77% to say work harms their home life.

Idan Khalili, a social worker who left her job in the face of unbearable conditions, told the Ynet news site: “The workload was insane. I could only spend on average four minutes on a person per week.”

“You make impossible decisions all the time. And you can’t do anything but put out fires — and often, you can’t even manage to do that,” she said.

Social workers protest their working conditions, during the COID-19 crisis, in Tel Aviv on July 21, 2020. Sign reads ‘Disgrace.’ (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Social workers also face violent work conditions. Some 84% of workers reported experiencing verbal abuse, 54% experienced physical violence, and 29% reported exposure to sexual harassment by of applicants or their families.

Alongside harrowing conditions, the social service sector has suffered severe budget cuts. About 46% of workers said programs, services and projects have been scaled down; 36% reported programs being canceled altogether; and 23% reported cuts in staffing and jobs.

Illustrative: elderly Israeli women wear face masks amid the COVID-19 crisis, in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel Amir, a community social worker, detailed the new challenges COVID-19 posed to social services: “The elderly are crammed into homes. Usually, they would venture to a day center and have good social experiences, and would be met by a social worker who would accompany them. But social workers are unable to get to day centers or visit the elderly at home. This means they have no way of identifying whether the elderly are suffering from violence or neglect. It is a very difficult situation.”

“New people are suffering from poverty because of the coronavirus. We have a lot of inquiries from people who had never come to us before. Yesterday, I spoke to a man who had never turned to social services before. He has eight children and was recently fired. The family is suffering from basic shortages, which builds tension between him and his wife. And his situation is worsening,” Amir said.

The average wage of social workers in Israel is significantly lower than that of other countries, including the United States, Denmark, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

Welfare Ministry employees planning the strike have claimed the Finance Ministry is “ignoring” the social ramifications of COVID-19.

Employees are demanding the allocation of necessary resources, including increased staffing; compensation for overtime work, and the improvement and maintenance of employment conditions.

The chair of the Welfare Ministry Workers’ Committee, Mazal Golan, said: “Unfortunately, there is a severe shortage of workers, who are forced to work morning till night on an unreasonable amount of new cases — all because of the Finance Ministry’s resistance.”

“We are not demanding wages, but staffing standards and compensation for the work we perform overtime, so that we can serve underprivileged communities in the State of Israel.”

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