Bituach Leumi office, Beitar Illit
Bituach Leumi office, Beitar IllitIsrael News Photo: (file)

The Jerusalem District Labor Court decided Thursday that it will not intervene to end an ongoing strike by employees of the National Insurance Institute (NII, or Bituach Leumi), Israel's social welfare administration.

NII administrators had filed a petition with labor court requesting a temporary injunction to end the strike, which began at the start of this week. However, the court rejected the petition. Instead, the judge ordered a hearing of both the NII administration and the employees, which is scheduled for this coming Sunday afternoon.

The NII labor union has 3,500 members on strike. The Institute's branches throughout Israel have been closed for the week. There have been no office hours, nor have employees been answering NII telephone lines. However, an automated phone service used by the NII continues to function, because it has been outsourced to a private firm.

The NII provides benefits and assistance to the elderly, Holocaust survivors, mothers, and employees suffering from work-related injuries. NII programs also cover general disability, long-term care, unemployment, bankruptcy and liquidation of corporations. The Income Support Law, also under the administration of the NII, is "designed to protect every family from loss of income and to assist needy populations," according to NII.

The NII labor union, headed by Yaron Tzarfati, demands additional manpower, including 100 new personnel, to handle the increased caseload brought about by the economic downturn. An additional expected source of pressure on the NII staff is a new regulation that would award disability benefits to employed handicapped people. The new legislation is slated to go into effect on Sunday.

Tzarfati said the increasing pressures on an overworked NII staff "degrades the quality of service the public receives."

While rejecting the demand for an additional 100 employees, the NII administration offered to add 40 new positions. However, this compromise was rejected by the union.

According to the court petition filed by the NII, the union's demands are impossible to meet, as they are beyond what the Institute can afford. In the meantime, the NII administration said, the strike has caused serious harm to a wide swath of the Israeli public.

NII personnel do not foresee easy negotiations -- if they are ordered by the court on Sunday. While the administration is operating under budgetary constraints, the labor union's demands have thus far been supported by the powerful Histadrut, Israel's national labor union.