All New Zealanders deserve to live in dignity – stories from the frontline of Work and Income

Over the last week or so several very brave people have shared their experiences online of the challenges they are experiencing dealing with Work and Income.

It is important to acknowledge how brave it is to share these experiences when the government has continued to characterise people requiring income support as work shy, drug taking, criminals who don’t care for their children, and have been happy to misrepresent the financial situation of people who have publically challenged their decisions.

As usual I’ve been talking with beneficiary advocacy groups and other community groups who are trying to support people on low incomes and I’ve been hearing stories that are very consistent with the examples shared and here are some examples of the stories I’ve been hearing consistently to share:

  • Despite the government rhetoric of providing wrap around services to help people into work, most people are having to deal with a whole range of people, are not being provided support and feel as if staff are not well trained or informed of entitlements or disabilities. More over people are routinely given false information about what they’re entitled to and are not being told what support is available.
  • Paper work regularly goes missing, delaying access to payments and requiring applicants to spend an inordinate amount of time, and money they don’t have, gathering papers and receipts. For people with disabilities and mental health problems this creates extra costs and also very real barriers to access. Many people share stories of Work and Income losing their information multiple times before they learn to either take copies of the documents or even record themselves handing over the papers.
  • People are sometimes having to wait weeks to be able to get an appointment for urgent assistance. Weeks is too long when it comes to paying rent and feeding yourself or your children.
  • An unreasonable intransigence about appointment times including requiring someone to attend an appointment at a time they had organised a job interview. Missing appointments can result in sanctions.
  • People who are informing Work and Income that they’ve got jobs aren’t being told they are entitled to transitional assistance until they start work and are not being told they might still be entitled to the accommodation supplement. This means that some people are really struggling and starting their jobs in debt or unable to manage all their costs even with a job. This clearly negates the purpose of social security and the emphasis on getting people into work.
  • There is a culture of blame and mistrust in many, though not all, offices that mean most people going into the work and Income offices come out feeling much worse than when they went in and in some offices it seems normal for people to be in tears.
  • Clapping/ringing bells when ‘the staff get’ someone off benefit without any consideration of how other people in the open plan office might be feeling or the lack of power of the person being so publically ‘congratulated’.
    People report dramatically different service and access to entitlements when they go in with an advocate or complain publically.
  • There seems to be a tightening of what is being granted under the disability allowance and decisions of doctors are being overturned by work and income. This has resulted in very real stress and increased anxiety and has made it harder to for people to get the treatment and care they need to live.
  • Work and income offices are displaying posters with the statement “it turns out my biggest disability was thinking I couldn’t work.
  • Advances and grants are being denied, ignoring the available discretion. This is routinely happening over the 0800 line and at appointments without any written record of the decision. This means we cannot assess if more applications are being declined or not and hold the government to account. I have heard several examples from several areas of the country of people being refused bond and rent in advance in this way, the consequences of this is clearly significant. Some of the decisions have been almost immediately reversed when advocates have intervened.
  • While the government tells us x number of people have got off the benefit and into work they are actually misrepresenting the facts. They don’t know what happens to many people who go off benefit. I’ve heard there is a systematic attempt to shift people onto study link without checking if they are entitled to additional support. I was told of a woman with two children who was now only able to access a student loan of $173pw. I am also hearing of people just giving up and deciding to try to survive in the informal economy because they just can’t bear dealing with Work and Income any more. Again this is not providing social security and it is hard not to see a likely increase in crime, poor mental health, hospitalisations or even just a loss of tax.

These experiences add up to barriers in front of people trying to get by and improve their situation. How do you improve your mental health when you are treated with contempt? How do you get a job and properly focus on getting a great job when you’re having to spend so much of your time battling the bureaucracy.

We have a deeply flawed social security which the current culture is making much worse. This is not the fault of the staff. The Minister is fully aware of these problems and we have repeatedly asked her to conduct a comprehensive audit of whether people are accessing their entitlements and she refuses. She is in breach of our social contract. At the heart of our understanding of human rights is a sense of the importance of human dignity. We need a government that promotes dignity.

9 thoughts on “All New Zealanders deserve to live in dignity – stories from the frontline of Work and Income

  1. further to Trevor’s comments/questions… The Privacy Commissioner is only usually interested if you can show harm, and increasingly this has to be significant so breaching privacy on the grounds staff clapped when someone found paid work is unlikely to be recognised by the PC. Many years ago i forced the frosting on the service centre windows by Lady Rankin as I showed have no frosting breached privacy…but that took a year to resolve…
    As for damages….. nothing specific… especially if legal entitlement eventually paid. There is provision for “ex gratia payments”… when arrears not legally possible but the individual has suffered. It is a long and involved process and harm needs to be significant. The last one I achieved was when entitlement not possible as no application made but in meantime client took in a boarder to help balance her budget. The boarder raped the pre-school daughter of my client….. It took many months and the payment was token in comparison…. so compensation for clapping…
    And as for interest…tried that and failed in a case I had before the Social Security Appeal Authority

  2. Yes, you are absolutely right about what goes on at WINZ and on the front-line at WINZ offices for clients affected. It is not getting any easier, and the system has become so complex and difficult to work with, even for staff working there, it is a nightmare for an increasing number of clients AND staff.

    “Wrap around services”, whenever I hear that, it scares the hell out of me and others. I have seen little of a “warm” kind of “wrap around service”, all I see is a choking “wrap around service”. It is appalling how MSD and WINZ now challenge so many medical certificates, basically not trusting doctors of clients. I remember in 2008 when Judith Collins (known as “Crusher Collins”, and now being exposed as the self serving promoter of her partner’s or friend’s business on “official” visits to China) was releasing endless press releases on alleged “bullying” by clients and patients of doctors. It was suspected that hordes of sick and disabled were threatening their GPs if they would not issue certain medical certificates. What a load of nonsense, and I say so, as there were only 2 doctors ever quoted by her, and it was never established as truthful in a more general sense.

    But she got away with it then, same as she gets away with too much now. Doctors must abide with their Code of Ethics, and sadly some do not seem to adhere to it, like a fair few “designated doctors” that WINZ use. Some of them do the bulk of assessments for WINZ, guess why!

    So more scrutiny must be put onto WINZ and their internal staff and especially the health and disability advisors they now use. The endless harassment of clients must end, and it requires a change of government to do this. So I rely on Jan and the Greens to lead the challenge and policy attack, as sadly Labour has let too many of us on benefits down.

    See this for some useful info re what goes on re medical assessments by WINZ doctors and so:

    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/15463-designated-doctors-%e2%80%93-used-by-work-and-income-some-also-used-by-acc/

    http://www.gpcme.co.nz/pdf/GP%20CME/Friday/C1%201515%20Bratt-Hawker.pdf
    (Principal Health Advisor for WINZ, Dr Bratt, comparing benefit dependence to “drug dependence”, see pages 13, 20, 21 and 35)

    Check also (per online search): ‘nzsocialjusticeblog2013′

    http://blacktrianglecampaign.org/2012/05/31/a-tale-of-two-models-disabled-people-vs-unum-atos-government-and-disability-charities-by-debbie-jolly-dpac/

    http://blacktrianglecampaign.org/2012/09/09/professor-mansel-aylward-my-what-a-very-tangled/

    And the questionable propagators for the alleged “health benefits of work” managed to get a strong foothold into the medical training profession by having President Elect David Beaumont (formerly from ATOS in the UK) of the AFOEM bring in the same ideology there:

    http://www.racp.org.nz/page/racp-faculties/australasian-faculty-of-occupational-and-environmental-medicine/realising-the-health-benefits-of-work/may-2010-video-presentation-professor-sir-mansel-aylward/

    Beneficiaries are being pressured or even harassed endlessly now, and are not just second class people, they are increasingly even beyond margins and third class people.

    That is what this present government stands for. Talk of “help” is hollow and dishonest, as for instance many mental health and addictions service providers face caps and cuts for funding.

    The extra investment into “welfare” that Bill English often talks about is all about extra case managers at WINZ to harass more people, to move on from “illness” and suggest they are simply “malingerers”, and to pressure them into open employment. What a disgrace!

    The challenge for WINZ staff is to work as the Chief Executive and Minister expect them to, which will not be an easy and comfortable task, especially fort he ones that may actually care and want to help.

    (Re edited post from early 22 March 2014)

  3. The problems are systematic which combined with poor training in regards to the scope of what the Social Security Act can do leads to unnecessary tensions and staff not thinking what people mcan get.
    classic example is when the beneficiary gets full-time work, but at 414/15/hour.
    They almost always entitled to on-going accommodation supplement (unless HNZ0 but this assistance is simply stopped without any thought given to…. “what is your wage?” “Let me check to se if you still qualify for Accommodation Supplement?”
    Consequence is rent arrears, evictions or loans from the sharks and unnecessary stress for the worker and his/her family.
    Thousands are affected…. simply trace the numbers on low wages with private landlords and the numbers of non-beneficiary recipients of the accommodation supplement and work out the miss-match…
    This is just one problem of many.
    The desire to cull numbers of recipients is manic, unlawful and counter-roductive

  4. Yes, you are absolutely right about what goes on at WINZ and on the frontline at WINZ offices for clients affected. It is not getting any easier, and the system has become so complex and difficult to work with, even for staff working there, it is a nightmare.

    “Wrap around services”, whenever I hear that, it scares the hell out of me and others. I have seen little of a “warm” kind of “wrap around service”, all I see is a choking “wrap around service”. It is disgusting how MSD and WINZ now challenge so many medical certificates, basically not trusting doctors of clients. I remember in 2008 when Judith Collins (known as “Crusher Collins”, and now as the corrupt, self serving hubby business promoter on “official” Chinese visits) was releasing endless press releases on “bullying” by clients and patients of doctors. It was suggested that hordes of sick and disabled were threatening their GPs if they would not issue certain medical certificates. What a load of bullocks, and I say so, as there were only 2 doctors ever quoted by her, and it was never established as truthful in a general sense.

    But she got away with it then, same as she gets away with too much now. Doctors are having to abide by their Code, and sadly some do not adhere to it, like a fair few “designated doctors” that WINZ use. Some to bulks of assessments for WINZ, guess why!

    So more scrutiny must be put onto WINZ and their internal staff and health and disability advisors. The endless harassment of clients must end, and it requires a change of government to do this. So I rely on Jan and the Greens to lead the challenge and policy attack, as sadly Labour has let too many of us on benefits down.

    See this for some useful info re what goes on re medical assessments by WINZ doctors and so:

    http://accforum.org/forums/index.php?/topic/15463-designated-doctors-%e2%80%93-used-by-work-and-income-some-also-used-by-acc/

    http://www.gpcme.co.nz/pdf/GP%20CME/Friday/C1%201515%20Bratt-Hawker.pdf
    (Principal Health Advisor for WINZ, Dr Bratt, comparing benefit dependence to “drug dependence”, see pages 13, 20, 21 and 35)

    Search also via online search: ‘nzsocialjusticeblog2013′.

    http://blacktrianglecampaign.org/2012/05/31/a-tale-of-two-models-disabled-people-vs-unum-atos-government-and-disability-charities-by-debbie-jolly-dpac/

    http://blacktrianglecampaign.org/2012/09/09/professor-mansel-aylward-my-what-a-very-tangled/

    And they managed to get a strong foothold into the medical training profession by having President Elect David Beaumont (formerly from ATOS in the UK) of the AFOEM bring in the same ideology there:

    http://www.racp.org.nz/page/racp-faculties/australasian-faculty-of-occupational-and-environmental-medicine/realising-the-health-benefits-of-work/may-2010-video-presentation-professor-sir-mansel-aylward/

    Beneficiaries are being harassed endlessly now, and are not just second class people, they are increasingly even beyond margins and third class people.

    That is what this present government stands for. Talk of “help” is hollow and dishonest, as for instance many mental health and addictions service providers face caps and cuts for funding.

    The extra investment into “welfare” that Bill English often talks about is all about extra case managers at WINZ to harass more people, to move on from “illness” and suggest they are simply “malingerers”, and to pressure them into open employment. What a disgrace!

  5. I would consider ringing a bell and publically being congratulated for getting a job to be a breach of my privacy. Can the staff members be taken to court for this? Even the attempt might make them wake up.

    What would happen if a beneficiary charged WINZ for the time required to correct WINZ’s paperwork at the minimum wage rate – and then took them to the small claims court when they didn’t pay up at which point the beneficiary could probably add travel expenses too?

    Could a beneficiary claim interest charges on delayed payments?

    “decisions of doctors are being overturned by work and income” – is this practicing medicine without a licence?

    My own experience with WINZ or its predecessors (now some time ago fortunately) is that there are some staff who are trying to be helpful and friendly, but some are condescending even though they seemed to know less than me about aspects of my situation, and the overall impression is that what walks through the door is there to be processed when it is convenient for the staff.

    Disclaimer: I have never asked for or received any money from them.

    Trevor.

  6. I guess for the few hundred convicted of benefit fraud they face the same consequences of those defrauding IRD. Ironically the thousand’s under-paid by have little come-back unless they become aware of advocacy groups.
    Many Wk&I case-managers, most even most are decent people, but the systems and training is geared not to invite applications and not to ask the questions that might lead to needs being met.
    Not receiving one’s lawful entitlement has consequences such as being evicted through unpaid rent, becoming unwell and needing hospitalisation because the person could not afford primary health care.
    Our systems are flawed and are sadly getting worse.

  7. Scrap the whole lot and bring in UBI so we can all do more productive things with our lives, in sickness or in health, than be a party to and pay for the failed welfare state.

  8. I have not seen ‘clapping/bell ringing’ at my local W & I office. I tend to find the staff are courteous & helpful.. BUT I have noticed, overtime the decrease in staff numbers & I don’t get any real assistance with job seeking, being told “I have to be more pro-active”.. meaning I have to make more effort myself.

    I was on a benefit some years ago (under Labour) & seem to remember higher staff numbers, more contact & regular interviews with staff assistance in job search.

    kia ora

  9. Bear in mind there was a High Court ruling that they HAVE to inform people of what they’re entitled to, which they routinely do not do. I’ve had to correct staff on their own benefits frequently.

    Filed an appeal 2-3 months ago and haven’t heard anything, still don’t have my disability allowance from the start of last December. Luckily I’m just managing to study 2-3 papers a semester, if I study over summer as well I can hit the 8 papers to count as full-time and live off the student allowance… barely. Just had to drop a paper because I’m not well enough to keep up. I’ve basically given up on WINZ.

Comments are closed.