Disabled Work and Income clients suffering harsh penalties for relationships and part-time work

The Ministry of Social Development is in the middle of a welfare system consultation. From September to November 2018, an advisory group heard from people in 16 centres around the country. Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni told Newshub the Government has committed to the overhaul of the welfare system to make it fairer for all New Zealanders. "We want to ensure the system is fit for purpose and can respond to the social, economic and technological changes experienced over the last few decades and well into the future." The advisory group will report back to the minister at the end of February.

A Work and Income (WINZ) client with muscular dystrophy says it took her 11 months to be approved for the Supported Living Payment (SLP), only to lose it when she moved in with her partner.

The year after Olivia* was approved for the payment, which provides financial assistance for people with limited ability to work, she began a relationship.

The 34-year-old Wellingtonian and her partner made the "huge decision" to move in together in 2016, which meant Olivia lost her WINZ entitlements.

"Because I've made the decision to live with my partner, I've lost the independent income support I had. My partner has to do heaps more to support me physically, her whole income has to support both of us," she told Newshub.

The Work and Income website shows $41,494 is the maximum a couple can earn per year for one member to be entitled to the payment, where a single person could earn up to $28,166 to receive it.

"The cost of disability doesn't go away just because you're living with someone else," Olivia said.

For Olivia, that cost includes non-subsidised medication and supplements, travel costs and expensive disability-specific equipment.

Esther Woodbury, policy and relationships manager at advocacy organisation Disabled Persons Assembly says for many disabled people who are unable to work full-time or who are struggling to find full-time employment, the welfare system leaves them in poverty.

"Benefits are set low with the understanding that it's a stop-gap measure, a temporary thing. But that's not the case for many disabled people, and the real effects of poverty accumulate and are felt over time."

Olivia says there should be a universal disability allowance.

"The cost of living with a disability is just much higher, and that's not taken into account when you look at income thresholds.

"If we want disabled people to live independent lives, then we also need to be financially enabling that."

Individual and couple benefit rates reflect how couples support each other with financial costs and combine their incomes, a statement from the Ministry of Social Development says.

"The thresholds ensure that we treat all our clients fairly and each person receives what they are entitled to.

"We do encourage our clients like Olivia to come and talk to us about their individual situation to see if there is more we can do for them," the statement says.

Part-time work not worth it

Jennifer*, 31, from Auckland, says current abatement levels for the Supported Living Payment are harsh on those seeking part-time work.

"If you have a degree like me, you actually want to be working and contributing to society. But if you have WINZ saying every time you earn more than $100 you'll have money taken off of you, the idea of working isn't so appealing after that."

The University of Auckland graduate, who is vision impaired and has mild hearing loss, had a temporary contract with the Electoral Commission last year, lasting three weeks, where she worked up to 40 hours a week.

"It was the only contract I had all year and I earned just under $2000. With the Supported Living Payment you're supposed to be able to earn up to $5200 per year without abatement, except the rules are that your income is calculated on a weekly basis instead.

"I earned well over $100 in each of those three weeks. So I couldn't receive the Supported Living Payment at all while I was on that contract."

Ministry of Social Development Regional Commissioner Mark Goldsmith says Work and Income is doing its best for Jennifer and is sorry to hear she's had a hard time securing employment.

"We understand some people who contact us may be frustrated with how things work and we know working through these things can be hard. We appreciate Jennifer is trying to make the best of her situation and remain committed to helping her."

Mr Goldsmith says the ministry is introducing a raft of other changes at Work and Income.

Olivia's experience of applying for the Supported Living Payment before she was in a relationship is illustrative of why change is needed.

In 2011, she sustained an injury which, in combination with muscular dystrophy, resulted in chronic pain and a loss of mobility, including being unable to sit upright for "any decent length of time".

"I had been working before the injury and I was on Jobseekers for four years afterwards. I was trying hard to get back to part-time work but in the end it just wasn't practical for me.

"Eventually, I applied to change to the Supported Living Payment and that was a complete nightmare. I was strongly discouraged from applying by my doctor and WINZ, they thought I should keep trying to work."

Olivia added that Work and Income was "really unresponsive" to her access needs when she was dealing with the agency between 2012 and 2015.

"They kept wanting me to come into the office and not telling me why.

"I have limited mobility, limited energy to be out and about. In the WINZ office environment the chairs were uncomfortable, and there were long waiting times and long appointments."

She says Work and Income needs to consider the needs of disabled people.

"There's a real culture at WINZ of making people jump through hoops. It's unfair on anyone but it places a particular burden on disabled people or people with access needs, there were just no processes around that in my experience."

Minister Sepuloni says these issues are important to address.

"It can be difficult to ask for help. Creating a friendlier, warmer environment helps.

"Giving people more privacy, a space that's welcoming and inclusive for everyone, and creating a child-friendly zone for children to learn and play is important," Ms Sepuloni said in a statement.

The Minister was referring to a pilot programme carried out in four Work and Income centres between June and September 2018, which, she told Newshub, has received "overwhelmingly positive feedback" from clients.

*Newshub has agreed to use a pseudonym (Olivia) and first name only (Jennifer) for privacy reasons.


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