The Finance Ministry and the National Insurance Institute finally reached an agreement late Monday night on an emergency aid package. Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog hailed it as "an essential step in helping those facing the new economic reality while unemployed." The agreement was based on a plan presented to the Treasury more than two months ago by the NII and the Welfare and Social Services Ministry as an initial step to help reduce the pressure on thousands of citizens who have been made redundant over the past few months because of the economic crisis. According to the plan, which had been held up due to disagreements over funding, the criteria for a person to receive unemployment benefits from the NII was widened to include those who have worked for nine months out of the previous 18 months before being fired. Until now, only those who had been gainfully employed for the past 12 months out of 18 were entitled to receive state benefits. "This will allow many more of those joining the unemployment lines to be eligible for state help," Herzog said. "I believe that this agreement will succeed in helping a large segment of the population that is still in shock and disbelief at the new economic reality." In addition to extending the eligibility of unemployment benefits, the new arrangement also includes efforts to encourage Israeli employees back into the market. One of the most significant changes, a ministry spokeswoman said, dealt with nurses and caregivers for the elderly. Under the new arrangement, elderly people entitled to such assistance will be able to utilize Israeli nurses for an extra four hours at no additional costs, making it more attractive to hire locals than foreign employees. "All sides agree that this is the time for us to be strengthening the market and the workforce," Herzog said, adding, "Dealing with the growing unemployment should be the main challenge of the new government." NII Director-General Esther Dominissini said increasing the scope of government benefits was an important tool in helping the public deal with the recession. "We are on top of the situation and constantly looking for new ways to make sure that people make it through," she said. Figures published last month by the NII showed that it had received an additional 20,000 new requests for unemployment benefits, up 60 percent compared with the same period last year.