The economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Israel citizens. Israel's social security has already began providing unemployment benefits for almost a million newly unemployed, but eligibility criteria currently exclude teenagers and pensioners. For many teenagers, who have suddenly lost their source of income, this amounts to a significant blow.
“Of course, I can rely on my parents for a little while, but I understand that at some point they won't be able to support me anymore", says 16-year-old Efrat Rafaelov from Holon. Rafaelov works two jobs, both of which have shut down in recent weeks due to social distancing orders. According to HaNoar HaOved VeHalomed, the General Federation of Working and Studying Youth in Israel (NOAL), Israel's youth union, approximately 220,000 teens have worked since the start of 2020 – and the majority of them have lost their jobs following the onset of the coronavirus crisis.
"For about a month I worked at a climbing gym which opened earlier this year. Just as I was starting to feel secure about my role there, COVID-19 began, and the place closed because it's considered a leisure center," Rafaelov says. The entertainment venue located in the Tel Aviv port, where she had previously worked since September and which was her primary source of income, also shut its doors for the same reasons.
Losing her income weighs heavily on Rafaelov, who had planned to use her wages to ease her parents’ financial burden. "My dad is still working, and my mom is on furloughed leave at one of her jobs, and soon they’ll reduce her hours at the other job," she explains. "I don't give my parents all the money I earn, but I work to make it easier for them."
"For example, I was supposed to go on a school trip to Poland, which I knew my parents couldn't afford to pay for. So I worked hard and saved a lot, and then it was canceled," Rafaelov adds. “I use my wages for going out, for personal stuff, buying clothes. A lot of times I feel uncomfortable taking money from my mom. With my paycheck, I can afford to spend 100 shekels here and there, so it works out well."
The closure of her workplace caught Rafaelov unprepared. "I was in shock," she says. "I told myself, okay, what will I do now? I have some money, but eventually, it will run out. On the other hand, I’m glad that all the shopping centers and entertainment venues have been closed since it reduces my expenses."
When she checked whether she was eligible for unemployment benefits, she was disappointed to find out she hadn’t worked long enough in either of her jobs to qualify. She said: "Most teenagers are not eligible because they work off the books. I think the government should take care of working youth, because some of them support their families. My friends and other teenagers in my neighborhood don’t work for fun, and they need to receive compensation."
"I don't know what will happen with me"
Bar Bitton, 17, from Ramla, is in a similar situation. "When I asked my manager about the compensation that I was entitled to, she said that I could use my accumulated sick days. I only have a day and a half, which is nothing. I have to work. I have been working since I was 14 — I depend on it," says Bitton. Before the pandemic, he had worked five shifts a month over a period of five months at the Aroma cafe at Cinema City, a shopping mall in Rishon Lezion.
For Bitton, being unemployed and isolated at home is not only an annoying inconvenience, but also affects his plans for the future. "I wanted to save money for a driver's license, and I also need to pay for a trip to Poland that was canceled, but I still have to pay for," he says. "I play basketball, and that costs money. I help my parents to pay for it, and I pay for my own equipment."
"I help out a little at home, and it's hard," he adds. "I go to boarding school, and now it's closed, so I'm home, and my parents have to support me.”
Although this type of employment is often considered less significant, or even considered a hobby, many teenagers regularly work to contribute towards family expenses, whether it be a driver's license or general family expenses. We are talking about serious harm being done here
Bitton does not know if he will be able to return to work after the crisis ends, and he is worried about his future. "I don’t know what will happen. So far, they haven't told me anything about my future at my job, and I’m in complete uncertainty," he said. "A lot of teenagers work to support their families financially and also help out with chores at home. This situation hurts us in the present and in the future because there are many teenagers that may not go back to school [after the pandemic] because they have to work. This is a huge problem. I think the state should pay working teenagers."
"A third of teenagers have lost their jobs"
"Under Bituach Leumi [social security] criteria, most teens are not eligible for unemployment benefits for unpaid leave," commented Uri Matuki, chairman of the trade union division at NOAL. "We are working to change that, and we are optimistic that it can be changed.”
Currently, in order for workers aged 15 to 18 to be eligible for unemployment benefits, they need to have worked for at least 100 days over a period of at least six months at a single workplace. Other teens who do qualify for unemployment benefits include those whose wages constitute at least 20 percent of their families’ income, teens who do not have a living parent, and those in vocational training programs.
“We are trying to direct teenagers [who are searching for work] to fast-food chains, which are still operating. But at the end of the day, there are many unemployed people in the labor market. Currently, teens have no solution since they have no paid leave, and eventually, they’ll be left without an income," Matuki said.
“Teenagers and young people are primarily employed in industries that have entirely stopped functioning, and they were the first workers to be hit," he explained.
"About a third of teenage workers are employed in restaurants, cafes and fast-food restaurants, about 20 percent work at event venues, another 15 percent in stores, and the rest work as summer camp counselors and babysitters. Even those industries that are still unaffected are expected to be hit in the future."
According to Matuki, the food-service industry, which has been almost entirely shut down, employs about 160,000 teenagers. "We’re talking about a situation where about a third of teenagers' workplaces have been erased" he said.
"Although this type of employment is often considered less significant, or even considered a hobby, many teenagers regularly work to contribute towards family expenses, whether it be a driver's license or general family expenses. We are talking about serious harm being suffered here,” he explained.
"[These workers] are not eligible for unemployment benefits. They also have slim odds of finding alternative employment, especially in industries where the future is still unclear."
According to Matuki, many of the recent inquiries received by HaNoar Ha'oved V'elomed’s worker complaint hotline are questions from furloughed workers concerned about their wages. Most of the callers were waiters in their twenties whose employers have put them on unpaid leave. “We estimate that on April 10th, which would ordinarily be payday, we will receive a wave of inquiries regarding wages. Our plan is to make sure that in accordance with the new regulations on tips, wages should be calculated based on worker’s actual salary and not [depend on] tips".
Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut