The Unfathomable World of WINZ

I want to make it abundantly clear that I have no wish to criticise the case workers and telephone support staff that I have dealt with personally over the past two months.  Without exception I have found them to be friendly, helpful and empathetic.  The problem is that they are dealing with vulnerable and sometimes desperate people with a wide range of needs that don’t always fit the flawed ‘one size fits all’ structure of the institution they work within.  I am of course, talking about WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand).

Prior to being hospitalised and later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in September this year, I’d had little to do with WINZ.  I was briefly on a Jobseeker benefit after being made redundant toward the end of last year but aside from the ignominy of going cap in hand to WINZ feeling like a dole bludger, it turned out to be a relatively straight-forward experience and in the new year I’d found temporary full-time employment and moved on.

Unfortunately with WINZ, as soon as a disability is factored into the equation a whole raft of exhausting paperwork materialises that is made exasperatingly worse because you have … a disability. My hospital social worker was an enormous help in completing the voluminous paperwork required to access my ‘entitlements’.  I would’ve lost the will to live if I’d had to navigate through all that alone.  After four weeks of being hospitalised I returned home in a wheelchair, hopeful I would come to terms with this life-changing diagnosis and be able to concentrate on recovering to a point where I could eventually do a few hours work from home so I wouldn’t be fully reliant on a disability benefit.

The day after I was discharged from hospital I received my first Jobseeker Support payment from WINZ along with a letter saying they had determined I had two weeks before I needed to attend courses, work assessments and make myself available for work.  No mention of my disability or advice on how to get to any of these interviews or courses was forthcoming.  I was totally housebound.  I was no longer able to drive my car and I live nearly an hour out of town without access to public transport with disabled facilities.  Furthermore, I didn’t feel confident that two weeks would be sufficient time to rid myself of the overwhelming exhaustion that is part and parcel of MS and become a “Jobseeker” when the simple act of taking a shower took half the morning to accomplish.

The next correspondence I had from WINZ was a photocopy of one page of my Disability Certificate.  The YES/NO box that said “Does this person have a disability that meets the Disability Allowance criteria” hadn’t been ticked even though the rest of the form gave full details and a Work & Income Work Capacity Certificate had been submitted a month earlier ticked, signed and completed by the hospital saying “poor mobility, bowel & bladder control, fatigue and pain associated with multiple sclerosis”.  Unable to comply with their request to return the form in person with the now ticked box, I phoned to get a postal or email address.  This wasn’t possible.  I had to fax it.  I managed to find someone still using 1990’s technology and faxed if off hoping it hadn’t been reproduced on thermal paper and wasn’t quietly deteriorating to a yellowed state in the corner of some WINZ outpost.  I phoned to make sure they’d received it but was told it would take a few days to process.

The following day I received another letter from WINZ … “We understand you were admitted to hospital.  Please phone us immediately.  Unless you have ongoing costs that you can’t meet, your income support will reduce to $43.45 per week from 30 December.”  Aside from homeless individuals who might find themselves unfortunate enough to end up in hospital, who would fall into this category?  Most people I met in hospital had homes they were either paying rent or a mortgage for, the cost of which would be ongoing regardless of whether they’d been admitted to hospital.  Quite apart from the fact that WINZ must have known I wasn’t still in hospital as I’d spoken to them on the phone, why send out a letter that must apply to only a very small percentage of the population?  I phoned WINZ again and was told to ignore this letter.  I was starting to dread these communiqués from WINZ as it was adding to my stress and there was still no mention of my disability.

On the bright side, I was starting to feel a bit more confident and was learning to cope with my new disability.  I still had mobility and fatigue issues but had started to do a few hours work for my previous employer who have been amazingly supportive throughout my ordeal.  I declared this income to WINZ which was pretty meagre as I couldn’t do much in the way of hours but at least it was a step in the right direction.  I received an online letter from WINZ within hours.  My Jobseeker support had been suspended and I owed WINZ money.  I’d anticipated this and repaid a portion of what they thought I owed but I was still waiting for a resolution on the disability allowances I was due yet had heard nothing whatsoever about.

I contacted the hospital social worker and she was able to put someone from WINZ in touch with me from Auckland – due to the Kaikoura earthquake she wasn’t based in Christchurch, as they were terribly behind with their paperwork which was why my faxed form with the ticked disability box on it hadn’t been processed.  Furthermore it now couldn’t be processed because my benefit had been suspended due to my previous earnings declarations being slightly over the Jobseeker allowance!

In an effort to put my current position into perspective I read Angela’s Ashes from cover to cover and listened to the recently departed Leonard Cohen.

It’s strange how the Kaikoura earthquake can cause a three week delay processing my disability certificate, yet an online declaration of earnings can trigger an overnight letter in a heartbeat.  My Jobseeker Support had been restarted but Temporary Additional Support had stopped and deductions had been made to repay my debt.  No mention of disability, just a reminder that I owed the full amount without the repayment I’d made a week earlier deducted.  The letter ended with a spiel about attending interviews and courses and that l must accept any suitable job offer of work for at least 30 hours a week and provide evidence to WINZ of what I’m doing towards this.  There were even helpful suggestions about contacting employers in my area and visiting employment agencies.

By this stage I wasn’t only feeling depressed, I was angry.  I’m sure I’m not the first person who has just had their life turned upside down with a distressing diagnosis only to find they have to put up with this sort of stressful and inappropriate correspondence.  I phoned WINZ and was told to ignore the letter as it was computer generated and my disability allowances would be investigated and actioned.  I’m happy to say that this finally came to pass but not without a considerable amount of angst.  I feel desperately sorry for anyone in this position who may have a more upsetting and debilitating condition than I do and who might be less capable than me of dealing with this sort of inane crap.

I also feel sorry for the staff at WINZ because their dysfunctional system pushes people to levels of frustration that put them in the firing line for all kinds of abuse that isn’t necessarily their fault.  Why is there not such a thing as a Sickness Benefit?  And why do I have to keep sending off Medical Certificates every three months when I have an incurable disease – do WINZ know something about a forthcoming cure for MS that no-one else does?  Why must they treat people with genuine disabilities as full time ‘Jobseekers’ when they are physically and mentally incapable of pursuing that course of action.  Not only is it intimidating, it’s inhumane.

Furthermore, it would go a long way to preserving the mental wellbeing of this vulnerable group if we weren’t being constantly overwhelmed with a tsunami of irrelevant system-generated correspondence.  Perhaps WINZ should publish the Beginners Guide to Identifying Correspondence One Can Safely Ignore as it’s impossible to know when when to take it seriously and head for higher ground.

People with disabilities haven’t deliberately made some sort of lifestyle choice.  Most have paid their taxes and like me, have struck a hurdle and only want to pay their rent and put food on the table.  Let’s face it, no-one in their right mind would willingly choose to get caught up in the peculiarities of this unfathomable system.

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