Kiwis struggle to contact Ministry of Social Development amid economic fallout of COVID-19

As the economic effects of COVID-19 ripple across the country, many people say they feel "abandoned" by our inundated social welfare system, which is struggling to keep up.

Thousands of job losses are predicted over the coming weeks and months as industries all across the board struggle with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

With New Zealand in lockdown for at least four weeks, the lives of many are essentially on hold. But for those struggling to make ends meet, the new situation makes things even harder.

One woman in Christchurch - who asked not to be identified - told Newshub she had spent days trying to get through to Work and Income New Zealand to apply for a food grant for her and her husband but had yet to speak to someone.

After phoning as soon as the call centre opened on Monday morning, the woman said she was told by the automated reply she would have to wait 86 minutes. When someone finally answered, it was another automated reply telling her to hang up and call back. 

When she tried the website it kept crashing for two days. When it finally worked it told her to ring the call centre.

She had tried calling multiple times every day this week without luck.

"I've given up on calling actually. I've actually given up," she told Newshub.

The woman, who has been on an unemployment benefit for around a year, says she also emailed her case manager multiple times but has yet to hear back.

With everyone focusing on people panic-buying, those who can't even afford to buy the minimum are being forgotten, she says.

"We're in such a predicament where we might not have enough food to get through."

The 44-year-old says both she and her husband were on the cusp of gaining employment before the country started feeling the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. With both of them already well-through the interview stage of job applications, they thought their luck might be about to change. But then the country went into lockdown and they were both told the positions they were applying for were gone.

Although it's been tough, she says her heart goes out to those who have only just lost their jobs and need to urgently get in touch with the ministry. 

"I know how hard it's been for us before all this kicked off - I can just imagine what people are having to do when they've just lost their job. I feel sorry for them more than us because they're not going to be able to pay their rent and if they can't get through on the phone it's quite distressing."

She says she feels let down and desperate.

"There's nothing, absolutely nothing - I just feel like we've been totally abandoned," she said.

"We actually don't know what is going to happen next week, and we're having no communication. You'd think they'd communicate with people already in the system just to kind of let them know this might help, things might change and it might get easier next week or the week after.

"It's left us in total limbo."

According to the latest Ministry of Social Development figures, there were 546 hardship grants related to the impacts of COVID-19 approved up to March 19, totalling $75,114 worth.

In a statement to Newshub, the ministry said it was aware that more New Zealanders would be relying on its service over the coming weeks.

It said it was working to balance the higher demand with the fact that less of its staff were working due to the risk of COVID-19.

"We are working through a number of steps to respond to the high demand for our services, and the reduction in our workforce due to the requirement that some workers stay home due to pre-existing medical conditions or being over 70," said George van Ooyen, group general manager client service delivery.

"Our service centres have closed, but our staff are still at work helping clients.  We are working to enable all staff to work remotely."

The ministry was also moving to hire more staff or redeploy existing staff from other areas to cope with increased demand for its service, van Ooyen said.