One out of every four Israelis had their lives put on hold this week — those impacted by the strike of the government-employed social workers. The strike is a desperate, last-ditch effort to bring some measure of human dignity to the dedicated workers who are saving people’s lives on a daily basis. And significantly, both the striking workers and those whose lives are most deeply impacted by them are overwhelmingly women.
The professional lives of social workers are among the most taxing in society. They deal with the most harrowing cases of violence, abuse, poverty, drugs, crime and more. Their job is to help people function under the direst of circumstances, to believe in people’s abilities to change, to grow, to rehabilitate, and to build a better life, and to keep fighting to help people even when the rest of society has written them off. They go directly into the pit where most of us would not dare.
“This strike goes against our professional DNA of saying yes, helping, caring,” Chana Amsalem, one of the striking social workers, told reporters this week. Among the people waiting for the strike to be over are women who need a social worker referral to get into a battered women’s shelter; women who need a social worker’s approval in order to have an abortion; babies born to surrogate mothers waiting to be delivered to their parents; and children waiting for therapy following sexual abuse.
Amsalem is one of a handful of social workers answering calls on an emergency hotline for extreme cases. Only a fraction of those who call receive services.
But the social workers are at the ends of their ropes. A starting out social worker working full time makes a gross salary of NIS 4,183 ($1,160) a month, and a social worker with 15 years seniority and a master’s degree earns NIS 5,279 ($1,466) a month. They do not make overtime no matter what the emergency, they are often on call during odd hours and, to add salt to their wounds, they are often given contracts for 80% of a position, to save on budgets. But rarely does an 80% social worker actually stop working when the clock hits that last hour. It’s just not that kind of job, and so the 80% term often becomes a tool for exploitation.
The social workers are demanding a 30% pay hike, and overtime when they are on standby after regular work hours.
Tellingly, many of those deeply affected by the strike have also come out in support of the social workers. Avi, an IDF veteran whose daughter needs dialysis, described to the news site NRG the lengths to which his social worker went to during the Second Lebanon War, under threat of rocket fire, in order to ensure that his daughter received all the treatments that she needed. “She helped us in every way that she possibly could,” he said.
The idea that the social workers caring for everyone else need to be cared for themselves was tragically hammered home last week when a social worker in the north whose specialty was helping battered women was murdered by her ex-husband. In addition to the horror of her death, her colleagues said they were stunned by the realization that she was in a situation not unlike the women she was helping. As her supervisor said, “If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone.”
Social workers need our support, especially the support of women. They are living out a model of care that perhaps once characterized communities of women. The least we can do is show them that care in return.