Civil service perks that even high tech employees envy

Treasury Photo: Lior Mizrahi

Most private sector employees can only dream about the regular pay hikes, abundant vacation time and other benefits offered by public service.

An apocryphal story says that sometime in the early days of the state, the Ministry of Finance was trying to figure out how to persuade engineers to travel abroad for training. The solution they came up with was to give them a monthly payment from the state with a contribution from the employee, with the money accumulated in the fund being tax exempt.

Thus was born the advanced training fund. All state employees demanded an advanced training fund and they knew very well why: such a gift, which costs the state billions of shekel a year in lost tax revenues, can amount to NIS 1.7 million for an employee earning NIS 10,000 a month who saved for 30 years (assuming a 3% annual return on the fund). All state employees currently receive an advanced training fund, but it is still considered a privilege in the private sector - only a third of wage earners receive provisions for their advanced training fund from their employer.

The advanced training fund story can explain how state employees in Israel obtained a basket of rights that can arouse the envy of employees in the private market. A given need culminated in a specific solution for one sector in the civil service. The other sectors saw how good it was and demanded the same for themselves - and they got it.

250,000 jobs in Israel are in the "Government Ministries, National Insurance Institute, and National Institutions" sector as defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics. The average civil service salary of NIS 15,722 per month (according to figures from the Ministry of Finance director of wages) has increased 41% in real terms since 2009 but is still lower than the average wage paid in sectors such as information and communications (high tech), banking, and insurance. On the other hand, it can be assumed that even in high tech, there are many who would be willing to accept lower pay in exchange for some of the accompanying civil service benefits: job tenure, an annual pay rise until age 67, normal work hours, and five weeks of paid vacation a year (not including Saturdays, holidays, and sick leave). Gross salary is only part of the story, especially where state employees are concerned.

But what about the less well-known social benefits that state employees have obtained. These rights are granted to all state employees; it should be noted, however, that there are also sectors in the civil service that enjoy special (as of now) rights. For example, security agency employees receive package tours at nominal cost, while employees with membership in a sports group at the workplace have the right to participate in a weeklong competition in Eilat conducted twice a year. There are also club discounts granted to employees for various expenses, mainly for entertainment and leisure.

From tenure to a sports hour

NIS 400 for 400 hours

Over the years, training in the civil service has become a real industry. In addition to the already mentioned advanced training funds, employees are entitled to 10 training days a year at the employer's expense.

The training days are designed to enable employees to acquire important expertise in matters such as learning how to operate various systems and software applications. The third training instrument is payment for training: 400 hours of training in a recognized study framework will add NIS 400 extra to an employee's monthly salary. Once upon a time, training was available only to higher education graduates in the civil service, but this benefit was also extended with time; every state employee is now entitled to a first payment. Additional such payments require a degree. The heaviest "payment collectors" in the civil service are the teachers, who manage to increase their pay in this way with seniority almost every year. This is one of the reasons why the salary differences between young and veteran teachers in Israel are among the highest in the world.

Sick leave and vacation: It pays not to use them

State employees have always enjoyed more sick leave and vacation days than the legal minimum. As of now, a beginning state employee is entitled to 24 days of annual vacation, compared with 14 for his or her private market counterpart. Another advantage enjoyed by state employees is the option of getting money for unused sick leave and vacation days. A state employee can accumulate up to 55 vacation days (worth two and a half full monthly salaries). In addition, starting at age 50, an employee is entitled to convert some of his or her sick leave days (there is no ceiling for accumulating sick leave). At age 55, state employees can receive one day's salary for every three days of unused sick leave. This benefit can be worth hundreds of thousands of shekels.

Work hours: Careful not to deviate

The civil service is careful not to exceed the legally stipulated regular hours (42 per week), and also allows groups of employees with special needs to shorten their work day by 30 minutes. On the other hand, the civil service customarily pays employees wage supplements in the form of global overtime or standby hours.

Payment for standby hours was originally given to doctors and then extended to many other groups. It refers to payment for hours during which an employee is not at the workplace but is available to be summoned on short notice.

Car standard: To hell with road congestion

One particularly outrageous and even absurd wage supplement received by state employees is car maintenance. This benefit originated in the state's need to send employees to distant locations to which public transportation was not readily available. This benefit was extended over the years (sometimes at the state's initiative as a replacement for a pay rise). Today, every employee needing a private vehicle to do his or her work receives full payment from the state for the annual vehicle licensing fee, compulsory and comprehensive auto insurance, and a travel distance quota calculated by formula. The result is that Israel is combating road congestion on the one hand, while on the other hand encouraging its employees to use private vehicles with aid likely to amount to thousands of shekels a year.

Restaurants: Suchi or schnitzel?

The civil service regulations state that employees with no dining room at the workplace are entitled to a subsidized meal for NIS 23 at a nearby cafeteria. What do employees with no cafeteria near their workplace do? In recent years, these employees have received a winning arrangement that will probably become the next big thing: restaurant meals at the expense of the workplace. For example, employees at the Office of the State Comptroller in Jerusalem have the option of eating lunch (according to a basic menu) at any of the many restaurants in Cinema City; Bank of Israel employees on Har Hatzvim must decide almost every day whether to eat suchi at Suchi Rehavia or schnitzel at Hagvir.

The employees pay something under all of these arrangements, but it is usually a nominal payment. There are no free meals outside the civil service.

Kobi Amsalem: Not everything is wasteful but the problems aren't being dealt with

Former Ministry of Finance director of wages Advocate Kobi Amsalem says that the "secret" of state employees is protection against erosion of salary terms resulting from economic crises or surplus labor supply.

"Globes": Is there a gap in favor of state employees that did not previously exist?

Amsalem: "Work in the government was always a career. There was a basket of benefits that provided job security, an unfunded pension, and a salary that was not among the highest; the total package, however, was suitable for those who preferred such security."

Nevertheless, the balance between the civil service and the private market has changed. Is this because the situation of civil service employees has improved, or because the situation in the private market has worsened?

"Both are true. For example, if we take the surplus of lawyers in Israel over the past 15 years, it hasn't pushed the wage down or affected the employment terms of lawyers and prosecutors in the civil service and government. The collective protection has ensured that conditions will improve and will certainly not get worse. Incidentally, some of this is good, because the excess supply arouses complaints about deterioration in quality. If we had a surplus of doctors, we wouldn't want the quality of medicine to go down."

The situation in medicine is the opposite - there is a shortage of doctors.</i

"True, there is a shortage, and there you see salaries rising. The doctors' salary has gone up a lot in recent years, meaning that in the opposite situation, the public sector doesn't constitute a barrier to an increase in wages."

Does the state have a problem coping with mounting salary costs in the public sector?

"It's not a matter of weakness or strength. The government has to set its own goals. Traditionally, there are a lot of complaints about management of personnel in the civil service."

Justified complaints.

"Partly justified. It's not true that everything is bad, wasteful, and inefficient. The civil service works and provides people with services. There are systems that work. There are cases of lack of productivity and inefficiency - that's natural in a place with tens of thousands of workers. Can I say that these problems are being dealt with? I fear not. It's mainly the responsibility the managers and the supervisory parties, such as the Ministry of Finance and the Civil Service Commission.

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Treasury Photo: Lior Mizrahi
Treasury Photo: Lior Mizrahi
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