The coronavirus could be disastrous for Israeli service workers. Here’s what they told me.


JERUSALEM (JTA) — For the young and healthy, the coronavirus itself is likely to be mostly an inconvenience. But for many workers, the COVID-19 pandemic could literally cost them their livelihoods.

Obviously, many of us are deeply concerned about catching the highly contagious respiratory illness or about the growing possibility of being put into a 14-day quarantine. 

But in several tourist-generated businesses in Israel, many workers I have spoken with are in a state of despair. Work hours are being slashed, and some places are even shuttering their doors over dismal attendance and sales. Who knows when — or if — many of these businesses will recover?

While we can’t help but look at the inconveniences we are bound to suffer as our trips get postponed and canceled, movie theaters close and so many of us suddenly have to go into quarantine, there are people all over for whom the changes are not just an inconvenience.

Most people have no real idea the scope of what’s happening as a result of the novel coronavirus. The changes and effects have been swift, far-reaching and drastic with implications in so many industries. As of this writing, El Al has decided to place 80% of its workforce on unpaid leave, where the National Insurance Institute will pay just a percentage of the employee’s salary. 

I spoke with people who work at some of the top-tier hotels in Jerusalem who lamented the plight of many in the hotels and shed some light on the reality for the hotels and their employees. This is just an example of what’s happening in many fields and businesses across all sectors. The situation unfortunately is pretty grim for many people and will probably get worse before it improves.

The Orient is one of Jerusalem’s newest and fanciest hotels overlooking the First Station. I spoke to P, a hotel worker who told me the Orient is planning to close on Saturday until the end of March, when it will reevaluate. She said the staff is walking around in a daze; many of them have been crying. 

They, like the rest of us, have no idea what will be. But they are faced with the prospect of trying to find new work when hospitality businesses are suffering terribly, and a huge influx of job seekers will simultaneously be searching. 

I also spoke to S, who works at the Mamilla Hotel. He was so upset he could barely speak. 

Sections were closing and services were being slashed. Among the hundreds of staff, nearly two-thirds will be either put on unpaid leave or let go. How would they even decide whom to let go? The situation there is agonizing as they all await the painful decision. The David Citadel, a sister hotel to the Mamilla, will be doing the same. 

Next week, I was told, Mamilla has a scheduled occupancy of between 4-15%, an untenable percentage. At this point, it seems the Mamilla Hotel could easily be closed for Passover, as it simply cannot justify the huge expense for so few guests. 

It’s not just the hotels that are suffering. According to S, the Mamilla Mall has had a significant loss in revenue, another example of the far-reaching effects this health crisis is having.

Just across the street from the Mamilla, X works at the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria Hotel. She reported that the hotel, in an attempt to avoid letting people go, dropped much of the staff to either one day a week or unpaid leave. While this policy allows the employees to keep getting a paycheck of sorts, it is practically just symbolic and will hardly cover a person’s normal expenses. 

She explained that she just received her arnona bill (property/renters tax) and has no idea how she will pay it.

X is far from the only one. Pregnant women, religious mothers with kids who are the breadwinners, anyone who started within the year is being let go and their options are now severely limited.  

Unfortunately, those still technically on the payroll cannot even get unpaid leave benefits.

At the moment, the Waldorf plans to remain open for Passover. But with a growing number of empty rooms and cancellations, this could still change. 

The drastic measures are particularly difficult for the number of Palestinian workers in the hotels who have permission to work in Israel. Many of them, who often support their entire families, are the only ones who can even enter Israel. Some were already missing work due to the strict quarantine for the coronavirus in Bethlehem and a few neighboring villages. Now, with a lack of work, these employees have little recourse. 

Out to dinner at a popular hotel restaurant in Jerusalem this week, I was dumbfounded upon seeing how empty it was. This was at dinnertime on a holiday when the weather was beautiful — a day on which the restaurant would have normally been packed.

While the meal was thoroughly enjoyable and the extra personal attention I received was welcome, inside I was hurting knowing the reality. We gave a generous tip, figuring it was one of the few our servers would receive that day, and wondered how much longer the server would even be there to receive those tips. 

While at this point nearly everyone is affected by the coronavirus, it’s one thing to have plans canceled or be inconvenienced, and quite another to lose your livelihood. There are many people, in Israel and around the world, who literally don’t know how they will pay their rent or even put food on the table for their families because of this pandemic. We can only hope for the best, continue to support local businesses as well as we can and help the vulnerable around us. 

Recommended from JTA