When Moshe Shayon, director-general of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services, welcomed new minister Isaac Herzog into his job last Thursday, he highlighted to him that one of the biggest challenges facing the office was the lack of manpower compared to the growing number of social welfare cases.

"Last summer's war [with Hizbullah] and the disengagement [from Gaza] the year before have all contributed to putting pressure on our office," Shayon told the minister. "Our workers in the field are faced with a daily dilemma where they are overloaded with cases and have to leave many people without treatment."

On Sunday, three days after Herzog began his work as Minister of Welfare and Social Services, social workers responded to the issue of understaffing, with the head of the Social Workers Union even going so far as to say that if a plan is not actualized soon to remedy the situation, social workers would be forced to take serious action.

"At the moment, the pressure on social workers is extremely high," commented Itzik Perry, chairman of the Social Workers' Union. "There are not enough workers, and we are not being given enough tools to do our jobs. That puts us at risk of making mistakes."

According to Perry, despite a sharp increase over the past five years in the number of welfare cases being opened by the social services, the government has not added manpower to match the demand.

The most recent figures published by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services puts at around 3,500 the number of social workers providing services via local municipalities countrywide. The total number of families with open files in the social services stands at 480,000, although less than 200,000 are high priority, said ministry spokesman Nahum Ido.

Perry, however, said that the number might be even higher and averages out to roughly 230-250 caseloads per social worker. He cited the situation of Child Welfare Workers, who treat cases of children and youth at risk, as a good example of where the caseloads have reached unmanageable proportions: "The law says that a case worker should have no more than 35 children for them to be effective, but today most have about 150 children under their responsibility."

Treating the elderly and dealing with domestic violence is equally as stressful, pointed out Perry.

As a city where social welfare cases severely outweigh the number of workers available, Jerusalem is a case in point. In October, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a non-profit policy research center, labeled the capital as Israel's poorest city.

Dorit Biran, director of Planning, Research and Development of Social Services for the Jerusalem Municipality, said Sunday that more than 40,000 families currently have open welfare files, with only around 300 social workers to deal with them.

"In West Jerusalem, that averages out to 150 households under the responsibility of one social worker, and in East Jerusalem, it's up to 230," highlighted Biran. "Social workers here do not feel good about their work. As well as not reaching those who are not signed up with us, social workers here can not even deal with those who do have open files."

"How many people can a single social worker take care of?" asked Assa Ben Yossef, Head of the Social Welfare Department for the Local Authorities. "We hope the new minister will improve all aspects of the social welfare in Israel, but it is impossible for us to give quality services if we do not have the manpower and the tools to do so."

Ben Yossef said that while there is no shortage of new graduates - there are several schools training social workers in Israel - the hard work, long hours and low salaries make the profession extremely unattractive.

Perry added that there is also the problem of social workers burning out very quickly.

"Salaries are definitely a sticking point," he said. "But after five years of such intensive work many social workers look for work in other areas."

"These figures paint a very sad picture of the stresses faced by social services all over the country," finished Perry, adding, "Obviously, the new minister will not be able to find a solution to all the country's social problems, and much depends on the treasury and extra funding; however, if we do not see a plan to improve the situation over the next few years, then the union will have to go to battle on this issue."