WINZ Bureaucracy Failing

One of my governance roles for a not for profit organisation has connected me to WINZ in support of an employee and the experience has been hugely concerning. The people I dealt with were pleasant, and one in particular went beyond their job description to help me, but I am appalled at the callous and dehumanising nature of the system.

The employee (E) had been out of work while looking after a family member (with an increasingly debilitating condition) and when he/she recently moved out of the prime-carer role, had sought part-time employment. Our organisation has limited funds and to provide some certainty of income we gave them a short-term contract with a base level of hours (0.3). There are some weeks when E works the minimum but most weeks there are extra hours required. E is on the Job Seeker's Benefit and any extra hours must be accounted for each week and their benefit adjusted accordingly. While this seems fair and reasonable, the reality of adjusting the income can be fraught.

The employee is a mature person with a high level of interpersonal skills and living on a benefit or low income has been challenging. Until they found reasonably priced accommodation he/she was living in a basic hotel and this left them with $10 per week for food. A camping ground would provide cheaper accommodation but all are some distance from the city centre and, with no car and poor public transport, this was not an option. E has also found the seminars that have to be attended to access support are humiliating for someone of their maturity and capability.

There is an expectation that beneficiaries are self sufficient and can manage their benefits online. When ringing the WINZ 0800 number, and waiting the typical 20 minutes or so, there was constant encouragement to do this. E's laptop is too old to access any online services and he/she has resorted to using the computers at our public library. These are in high demand from many others on low incomes and there is a time limit on use. I was told that there have been a number of instances when a password isn't accepted or other glitches occur and it has taken more than the time allowance to rectify. The online system also assumes a reasonable level of literacy to negotiate it and this must be a challenge for many.

I wanted to provide some support for our employee by working out a less demanding way of paying them so that weekly adjustments wouldn't be necessary. The general 0800 number for WINZ assumes all callers are beneficiaries and there were no phone options listed for an employer. I hoped that the call centre might still be able to help me but after twenty minutes of music and suggestions to go online (without an answer), I gave up and followed their advice. There is a section on the website for employers but the specifics I wanted weren't there. There was only one 0800 number provided but this was under a section for those employing someone with a disability or health issue, I rang it anyway.

I ended up speaking to a lovely nurse who was very receptive and concerned, while she was unable to provide the information I required she sought support from her manager. I was praised for trying to support the employee and was informed that a new call centre was being established to help employers, but it wasn't active yet. I was intrigued that the employer's number I had used was much more user friendly than the one beneficiaries were provided with as it told me how many people were ahead of me on the queue and gave me the option of a call back without losing my place.

Unfortunately I was directed back to the beneficiaries 0800 number to get the specific advice I needed and after another 15 minute wait got through to someone who could explain the options. These were:
  1. Continue with the online adjustments and the challenges that clearly involved.
  2. Get the call centre to process the changes of income and by requesting "online support". I was told that a connection can occur a little faster if this was asked for. E told me that once he/she paid their SPARK bill to get back their cell phone service then they would try that. 
  3. Have a fixed income slighter higher than the minimum over the length of the contract but this would mean a reduced income for the weeks when the minimum is worked.
  4. Bank the extra hours over the contract term and pay it as a lump sum at the end. This would mean a reduced income for many of the weeks and once the lump sum was paid there could be a hefty bill from WINZ to manage the over payments (often referred to as fraud even when there is a legitimate reason for the over payment). 
For many beneficiaries with limited resources there seems to be a lot of pressure to be compliant and the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with the WINZ demands must be greater for those with limited literacy or having English as a second language. While benefits are strictly managed (overpayments chased up and hefty penalties for non-compliance), tax fraud is treated with greater leniency. There are many anecdotal stories of those eligible for benefits not receiving necessary support because the bureaucracy and WINZ culture is too challenging

I don't think that New Zealand has ended up quite as callous as what is portrayed in Ken Loach's award winning British movie I Daniel Blake, but I am sure many are falling through the gaps in similar ways. The fact that there are many people relying on food parcels and living in cars and garages should have rung alarm bells for the Government but it is only just beginning to realise the extent of need when it recently guaranteed emergency housing. The motel bills for housing genuine homeless has exploded to six times what was budgeted and may cost around $30 million a year based on current demand. One would have to wonder what all these people were doing to survive before the emergency housing was made easier to access. The Government obviously made little effort to determine the real housing shortfall earlier and I am sure there is huge unmet need in many other welfare areas too. 

Accessing a benefit for those who find themselves in challenging circumstances shouldn't involve a loss of dignity and even more stress. Our beneficiaries are treated as second class citizens by a system that appears to beat them down rather then giving them the real help they need. A broken and humiliated person is less likely to lift themselves beyond basic survival and our levels of youth suicide are an indication that many do not have the necessary resilience to get by. We can surely do better than we are.

This brings me to the logical conclusion that a Universal Basic Income (UBI) could provide a useful safety net and reduce the need for the massive levels of bureaucracy and stress. There are many views for and against a UBI but I think it is worthy of serious consideration. Either that or we invest in making the WINZ bureaucracy actually work.  


bsprout said…
The narrative that many beneficiaries are just lazy unemployed drug addicts has been discredited too:
Karl Gorringe said…
I am all too familiar with the hopelessly flawed system you are describing.

I'm currently working part time myself and I am on Jobseeker Support. Because of a medical condition I'm not required to front up for full time work but I'm still battling what you describe: the abatement rate.

It's a pretty appalling situation. No matter what your situation, every dollar over $80 that you earn is abated at 70 cents on the dollar. Once I take out all the tax, my income actually decreases the more that I earn.

This rate of $80 means that the much vaunted increases in minimum wage make zero difference to my income in real terms. All it does is decreases the number of hours I can work before the penalties kick in.

This rate of $80 was set more than twenty years ago. It has not changed since then.

What I suggest your friend does, if the employer is willing, is declare a few hours a week in order to prove employment, but not exceed $80 or the abatement rate will kick in.

Then once the hours have got to 30 or so, declare them in one go. All Winz will look at is the hours you have made for that week. There will be no penalties or debt. All that will happen is that your friend will lose the benefit for the next week, but then when they declare their hours for the following week, things will go back to normal. This will mean their income is consistent most of the time.

Good luck.

By the way, an increase in the abatement rate to a much more reasonable $160 was part of Labour policy a few years ago, but of course they lost the election and the opportunity to implement it.
bsprout said…
Thanks, Karl, that is useful advice. Good luck with your situation.

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