Swapping the stage for a deli: Israel underemployment rises

Published 1:29 pm Tuesday, July 21, 2020

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Associated Press
TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — A year ago, Cijay Brightman was doing sound and lighting for a Madonna performance in Israel. Now, after the coronavirus wiped out live events, he’s making sandwiches, slicing cheese and serving customers at a Tel Aviv deli.
Brightman spent the last 15 years perfecting his craft and doing what he loves as a stage technician. But in the wake of the pandemic, he has been forced to abandon his passion and profession — like thousands of others in Israel — and find any job that will pay the bills.
“Sometimes, I’m losing it,” said Brightman, 36, slicing sausage for a customer at the deli. “You worked with the biggest star in the world … with Madonna, and you were working on her stage, and a day after you just realize that you are nothing.”
Underemployment is plaguing workers around the world. Although there are no global statistics yet, the phenomenon is expected to grow as the economic crisis around the world deepens, said economist Roger Gomis of the International Labor Organization.
In Israel, experts say anywhere from a few thousand to tens of thousands are newly underemployed, one of the many economic blows set in motion by the virus.
Israel initially reacted swiftly to the pandemic. In the spring, the government shut down schools, events spaces, theaters and restaurants. The measures slowed the spread of the virus, but the country’s unemployment rate skyrocketed to nearly 28%, including both people who are unemployed as well as those on furlough. Many of those affected were self-employed and therefore unable to seek unemployment benefits.
By May, as daily infections were brought down to a few dozen, Israel began reopening the economy, sparking hope that those furloughed could return to their jobs and the unemployed could find new ones.
But what emerged as a hasty and erratic reopening triggered a spike in new infections, prompting a pause on plans and a rollback on some previously eased restrictions. With cases continuing to rise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently warned that Israel is “a step away from a new lockdown.”
And while the unemployment rate has dropped somewhat, it now stands at 21%, according to the Israeli Public Employment Service. That’s still far from the 3.9% rate before the pandemic. The country’s tourism, culture and aviation sectors have been hit particularly hard and it’s not clear how they will emerge after the pandemic.
The need for an income is even more pressing because critics say the government’s financial rescue packages failed to address the needs of the country’s hundreds of thousands of self-employed workers.
To address the surge in job seekers, the government has pledged more than 100 billion shekels — almost $30 billion — in financial aid. But that assistance has been hobbled by bureaucratic setbacks, and potential recipients say they received little or no money. The economic despair has sparked protests in Tel Aviv demanding the government follow through on its promises. Hundreds of young Israelis stormed through downtown Jerusalem after another demonstration on Saturday, clashing with police.
Sensing the rising anger, Netanyahu promised a more streamlined plan that tends to the needs of the self-employed, granting them an immediate stipend of up to 7,500 shekels ($2,200) and unemployment benefits well into next year.
Stories of those forced to cross over to new fields have become mainstays on newscasts. There is the stage actor who set up a delivery company named after Israel’s national theater and hired dozens of out of work thespians. Or the copywriter who was let go by an advertising company and started cleaning homes. To keep up her writing skills, she blogs about the strange things she finds in people’s bedrooms.
Many workers say they can’t rely on state aid. Some see no choice but to take other positions, which usually pay less and for which they are overqualified.
The situation is similar in other countries as the pandemic disrupts job markets. In Lima, Peru, Gianmarco Vargas was a clown before the virus struck. In a macabre shift, he is now building coffins for a company that is doing brisk business amid the rising deaths.
“This is going to pass. It is going to pass and I am going to once again be at children’s homes,” Vargas said. “We are going to laugh. We are going to play. I am going to do magic tricks.”
In Nairobi, Hillary Muthusi was a mixologist who owned an events business. He now sells bananas and plantains out of his minivan.
“The most important thing is to come home with something,” he said.
Economists in Israel say there is fierce competition over menial jobs, making finding any employment even harder. And with smaller salaries, those workers are paying less in taxes and likely spending less money, which can further dent the economy.
Momi Dahan, a professor at the school of public policy and government at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said underemployment is fine for the short term.
But if the coronavirus restrictions last much longer, preventing the return to work of tens of thousands of people, their jobs may become obsolete, forcing them to abandon the years of experience and skills they racked up.
If that’s the case, experts say the government should make sure it invests in training so that these and other unemployed workers can find work in new fields and don’t get left behind in a changing economic landscape.
“Some people just won’t have a choice because they need to make a living. The safety net won’t be enough,” said Gal Zohar, head of research and policy at the Israeli Public Employment Service. “But all throughout, the person’s skills must be bolstered. Whoever doesn’t beef up his skills will also miss out.”

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