(photo credit: )
When Welfare and Social Services Ministry Director-General Moshe Shayon welcomed Isaac Herzog to his job last Thursday, he stressed to him that one of the biggest challenges facing the new minister would be a lack of manpower to handle the growing number of social welfare cases.
"Last summer's war [with Hizbullah] and the disengagement [from Gaza] the year before have all contributed to putting pressure on our office," Shayon told him. "Our workers in the field are faced with a daily dilemma where they are overloaded with cases and have to leave many people without treatment."
On Sunday, three days after Herzog began his work as welfare and social services minister, social workers responded to the issue of understaffing, with the head of the Social Workers Union warning that if a plan was not implemented soon to remedy the situation, social workers would be forced to take serious action.
"At the moment, the pressure on social workers is extremely high," said Itzik Perry, chairman of the Social Workers Union. "There are not enough workers and we are not being given enough tools to do our jobs. That puts us at risk for making mistakes."
According to Perry, despite a sharp increase over the past five years in the number of welfare cases being opened, the government has not added personnel to match the demand.
The most recent figures published by the ministry put the number of social workers providing services via local municipalities nationwide at around 3,500. The total number of families with open social services case files stands at 480,000, although fewer than 200,000 are high priority, said ministry spokesman Nahum Ido.
Perry, however, said that the number might be even higher and averages out to 230 to 250 cases per social worker.
He also cited the situation of child welfare workers, who help children and youth at risk, as a good example of case loads that had reached unmanageable proportions. "The law says that a case worker should have no more than 35 children to be effective, but today most are responsible for about 150 children," Perry said. Those treating the elderly and dealing with domestic violence are equally pressured, he said.
Jerusalem is an example of a city where social welfare cases severely exceed the capacity of social workers. In October, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a nonprofit policy research center, labeled the capital as Israel's poorest city.
Dorit Biran, director for Planning, Research and Development of Social Services for the Jerusalem Municipality, said on Sunday that more than 40,000 families currently have open welfare files, with only around 300 social workers to deal with them.
"In west Jerusalem, that averages out to each social worker being responsible for 150 households, and in east Jerusalem it's up to 230," Biran said. "Social workers here do not feel good about their work. Besides not reaching those who are not signed up with us, social workers here cannot even deal with those who do have an open files."
"How many people can a single social worker take care of?" asked Assa Ben-Yossef, head of the Social Welfare Department for the Local Authorities. "We hope the new minister will improve all aspects of social welfare in Israel, but it is impossible for us to provide quality services if we do not have the manpower and the tools to do so."
Ben-Yossef said that while there was no shortage of new university graduates in the field, the hard work, long hours and low salaries made the profession extremely unattractive.
Perry added that there was also the problem of social workers burning out very quickly. "Salaries are definitely a sticking point," he said. "But after five years of such intensive work, many social workers look for work in other areas."
"These figures paint a very sad picture of the stresses faced by social services all over the country," said Perry, adding, "Obviously, the new minister will not be able to find a solution to all the country's social problems and much depends on the Treasury and on additional funding. However, if we do not see a plan to improve the situation over the next few years, then the union will have to go to battle on this issue."