Coronavirus: Should Israel's frontline workers be paid more?

With nearly 100,000 small businesses estimated to have shuttered in Israel during the past year, the idea of raising wages has not been raised for debate.

Illustrative photo of Israeli money (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Illustrative photo of Israeli money
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Low-paid frontline workers in supermarkets, pharmacies and other stores have been considered essential workers since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Their jobs require constant interaction with customers, putting them at high risk for catching the virus.
But while their sacrifices have been noted with lip service, has anything been done to compensate them for their work?
In the United States, there have been a number of unsuccessful calls by worker advocacy groups to increase compensation for frontline workers.
“Let’s not just praise them, let’s pay them,” US President Joe Biden proclaimed last month, as he introduced a plan to more than double the minimum wage to $15 as part of his $1.9 trillion COVID-relief stimulus package. Some have asked whether similar initiatives should be introduced here in Israel.
The problem is that many employers are themselves struggling to make ends meet.
“What, you want businesses that aren’t making any money to pay workers more?” Tali Friedman, head of the Mahaneh Yehuda Merchants’ Association, asked incredulously. “We’re trying to help the small businesses survive.”
With nearly 100,000 small businesses believed to have shuttered in Israel during the past year, the idea of raising wages has not been raised for debate. Small businesses are already fuming at what they perceive as unfair and draconian closures that have made them some of the hardest-hit victims of the economic crisis.
Indeed, Biden’s proposal to raise the minimum wage in the US is projected by many to hurt the economy more than help it, leading to 1.4 million fewer jobs and increasing the US budget deficit, which currently stands at $3.2 trillion, by $54 billion over 10 years,
according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office.
“No one in Israel ever said, ‘We’re working during corona, so we should get paid more,’” said Yaniv Levi, a spokesman for the Histadrut, Israel’s largest labor union.
The Histadrut undertook a number of actions to help workers during this period, he said, adding: “When the COVID vaccines became available, we pushed to vaccinate cashiers and other frontline workers first.
“We worked to solve work disputes for nurses and laboratory workers, and in some large companies, we helped workers come back from halat [unpaid leave] through agreements that we negotiated, and we have dealt with a number of individual cases as they came up.”
In addition, the Histadrut worked to raise morale among workers by distributing food or gifts, Levi said.
“Sometimes, a show of appreciation makes a big difference,” he said.