This morning I caught up with a group of people who have been mandated to attend a pre-employment course by Work and Income.
There was a wide range of people on the course, from the young to those close to retirement age, sole parents, people with a range of fairly serious illnesses as well as people just really wanting a job. There were very well respected community members and people who have been struggling for a while.
Everyone, including the tutors was worried about what is happening in Work and Income.
Among the issues they raised with me was the basic inadequacy of income. One young man gets $144 pw and has to pay $100 for rent, excluding expenses, leaving him $44 a week to cover all his costs . The young woman next to him was around the same age and had $80 income over her rent each week. They all felt that what you got was really dependent on luck and the case manager on the day.
The same young man had to leave the session with his tutor because , we were told, he was about to have his benefit cut for not turning up to WINZ instigated meetings. This was despite the tutor having a letter saying that the students were not required to attend Work and Income meetings while on the course.
The efforts the man had to go through to convince work and income staff that he had not been non-compliant were mind-boggling. Added to the injustice of it all was that the meeting he was being punished for not attending was a budgeting session; to learn how to pay for everything with his $44pw.
A tutor was also very concerned that a mother had had her benefit cut in half for missing three days of the course when it turned out she and her baby had been admitted to hospital after getting the flu and having seizures. She didn’t have enough money on her phone to tell anyone.
I heard from a student about how they’d previously had their benefit sanctioned for missing an appointment because their public transport was running late.
This is exactly what is happening. The sheer reality of being poor means there are times when people can’t afford to meet the expectations of Work and Income.
Everyone in the room talked about not being able to afford to heat their house or put proper food on the table. The young ones also talked about not being able to afford even the blankets to compensate for the lack of heating.
They were all looking for work but, even though the course was helping, they felt demoralised.
Each week they are given a wad of paper with around 60 jobs to apply for – the same jobs everyone else with work test obligations in the entire Wellington region are applying for too. Their cover letters and CVs go to one staff member who chooses who to put forward and they don’t get any feedback at all.
One woman talked about really wanting a full time job and how she’d been unsuccessfully applying for some and had been keeping her ‘work coach’ informed of her plans and efforts. Then one day her coach told her she needed to start looking for full time work, as if she hadn’t been listening to a thing she’d been saying.
I also heard from an employer who had asked Work and Income to send through CVs for them to consider. Surprised at poor standard of the CVs they raised it with the Work and Income broker who acknowledged the CVs had been of a poor quality as if there was nothing they could do about it.
I would have thought if this was a meaningful process they would have given that feedback to those applying for work and given them help to improve their CVs before submitting them.
Concerns were also raised about people really wanting to work but being offered limited hour part-time jobs that, because of secondary tax, the abatement rate and the fact it would make them ineligible for temporary additional income support, were just not financially viable.
People were also struggling to pay to go to their doctor and had family members with conditions exacerbated by stress who were really suffering.
We talked about what options people had and they said they felt powerless. There aren’t many advocates in their area and it’s really hard to know what their entitlements are. No-one wanted to go to the media or speak publically because they’ve seen how people are vilified.
So it’s up to us to speak up for and demand a fairer system. This system is not helping anyone.
Those on welfare need support to work, enough to live on in the meantime and the sense that they are included in society. Otherwise, what kind of society are we?