'From the heart' - but with a new mind-set

From the heart - but w

bari bar-zion 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bari bar-zion 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Bari Bar-Zion has heard all about the flaws of the government's Mehalev ("from the heart") program to move people from welfare to work. He knows quite well how bad things were when the program first got up and running - how people were forced to travel hours from their homes to attend meetings that did not, in the end, help them find work; how people were dropped from the welfare rolls as soon as they were placed in jobs, even if those jobs proved to be exploitative and short-lived, etc. Bar-Zion was working in the Finance Ministry then, dealing with the economic mess of chronic unemployment. Like his colleagues, Bar-Zion was concerned by the disproportionate rise in welfare recipients that the government had come to finance. And like Eli Yishai of Shas, then industry, trade and labor minister, Bar-Zion felt that various strict and inflexible requirements made the Mehalev program "successful but cruel" and, ultimately, not as helpful as it could have been. Changes that Yishai put in place have taken hold now, with demands that the companies operating the Mehalev program help participants find jobs that earn more money, prove that participants are indeed working, and ensure that they find work for the long term (at least 12 out of 15 months). Now CEO of Amin, the Mehalev franchisee for Jerusalem and the surrounding area, Bar-Zion oversees an operation that is run more efficiently - and, he says, more humanely - to help people find meaningful employment. Walking around Amin's offices in downtown Jerusalem, Bar-Zion proudly points out the systematic path that participants follow, a detailed step-by-step process that guides them from the moment they walk through the door to the moment they head off to their new jobs. "Each participant gets a personal plan," he says, striding from the reception hall to the offices where social workers, job counselors and in-house National Insurance Institute representatives prepare participants for work. "We run a tight ship here," Bar-Zion says with pride. "Within three days of walking through our doors, new participants begin an orientation course that includes an intake process, visits with counselors, examination boards and the construction of a personalized program." Amin teaches participants a range of skills for getting and then holding onto jobs. It also provides babysitting and even dental care, Bar-Zion says, so participants can concentrate on the task at hand. "Looking for work is a full-time job," he notes. While looking for work, participants continue to receive their NII benefits. And once they start working, they become eligible to receive financial grants from the government upon reaching various milestones on the job. They also continue to receive guidance from Amin counselors - in any of 14 languages. Amin is a combination of Action4Employment, a British company, and Aman, an Israeli consulting company that runs several government projects. Since 2005, it has received 14,000 case referrals from the NII. About one in three has been placed in a job, Bar-Zion says. Some are on display, as it were. The security guard at the front door was a participant three years ago; he has been working at Amin for the past 18 months. Another security guard also came to Amin as a participant. Most participants, Bar-Zion says with a laugh, actually find work outside Amin. Unfortunately about half of those who do find jobs work only part-time, and usually in low-paying jobs. Many of those who do not find work, it turns out, were receiving NII benefits even though they didn't need or deserve them. In such cases, Bar-Zion says, Amin "fails" to make a job placement but succeeds in cutting down on fraud. One of Bar-Zion's employees updates him on a disciplinary hearing for a "frequent flier" who, since 2006, has rejected every job placement suggested to her. This is precisely the kind of person the government has tried to remove from the dole, the kind who abuses the system to siphon public funds into her bank account for nothing. It's actually very difficult for Amin to take away such people's NII benefits, Bar-Zion explains, thanks to the much-increased oversight of the companies operating the Mehalev programs. The panel that heard the case of the "frequent flier" was an external, government-appointed one, and social action watchdog groups meet regularly with Amin representatives to see that participants are given fair treatment. Real progress in fighting unemployment (and welfare fraud, too, for that matter) still comes down to making job placements, though, and no one at Amin makes more job placements than Osama Shanan. A Druse who drives into the capital each week from Hurfeish, in Galilee, Shanan routinely places more than a dozen people per month. It's easy to see why: The man is so enthused, he's practically on fire. "I believe in what I do. I feel like I'm doing community service," says Shanan, a former investigator for the NII who spent four years checking to see whether welfare claims from east Jerusalem Arabs were legitimate. "Thank God, I've helped a lot of families. I've seen what drugs, domestic violence, even prostitution can do to people. So many people come in here broken. If we can get them to work and to smile again," he says, "then nothing is impossible." Shanan has heard all the excuses and seen all the hardships that go with years of unemployment. "Politics does play a part," he says. "People say, 'The occupation owes me.'" But Shanan, who served in the IDF, does not relent. "I have to look women in the eye and tell them that, no matter how they feel, no one is going to simply come in and give them money for their children. I spend a lot of time explaining how important it is to maintain their family's dignity by working. I tell them it's a mitzva to work to support their children." He is always careful, he says, to get the message across that gainful employment comes when the participant wants it, not when it is forced. "I constantly tell people, 'Don't work for my sake, work for yourself!'" Shanan's enthusiasm clearly rubs off on the people he counsels. One, a young Arab man, beams as Bar-Zion walks by. "For years, no one ever told me to go get a job and make something of myself," he says. "Now, Osama has me raring to go!" Shanan appreciates the young man's newfound passion, but he knows that real change comes with time. "Just today, a new participant came in and started telling me that he wanted to work," Shanan says. "I stopped him and asked if he really wanted to work. Because lots of people say they want to work, but then they start giving you conditions - I won't do this, I won't accept that, etc. He said it didn't matter, he just wanted to work. So I arranged a placement for him at a factory in Atarot, right then and there." Leaning back in his chair, Shanan gives a prolonged shrug of his shoulders. "We'll see," he says. "We'll see!"