Tough times looming for unemployed, beneficiaries as coronavirus takes hold

For beneficiaries and thousands of soon-to-be unemployed, some tough situations are looming in trying to navigate Work and Income's bureaucracy. Alex Braae reports for The Spinoff. 

With three kids at home showing symptoms of illness, and having recently been in contact with someone from overseas, Jane* knew staying home was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, she also needed a food grant, and claims Work and Income wouldn't give it to her over the phone.

"I know they will grant it if I walk in, but I mean what's the difference with face to face or on the phone? It all gets approved on a computer system… They make you jump through so many unnecessary hoops."

She said it left her and the kids in a terrible position – on the one hand she had to speak to someone face-to-face to put food on the table, but at the same time knew that by doing so it could put other people at risk. "I won't go in to the office and spread our germs, so I don't know how I'll feed us until next pay day."

It's just one example of what is going to be an increasingly common story in the coming months. Beneficiary advocates have long argued that the Work and Income bureaucracy is unnecessarily challenging to navigate, lacking in empathy, and that results often seem arbitrary.

That infrastructure is about to face a huge challenge. It is increasingly clear that a massive wave of unemployment is about to break over the Ministry of Social Development. Significant numbers in the tourism and hospitality industries in particular have been put out of work in the last week alone, because of the economic hit caused by measures to fight Covid-19.

The government's $12.1bn package, announced Tuesday, included a number of measures targeting beneficiaries. Stand-down periods have been removed for those who get made redundant, changes have been made to free up access to the In Work Tax Credit, the main benefit has been permanently increased by $25 a week, and the Winter Energy Payment has been doubled for this year.

But for some, the entitlements themselves aren't the problem. It'll be keeping safe and healthy while trying to access them. Auckland Action Against Poverty's Ricardo Menendez March was deeply concerned by what he saw at the Onehunga Work and Income office on Thursday afternoon. At that office, walk-ins (for emergency support and food grants particularly) are only available between 2-5pm, he says. And the waiting room was packed, with people shoulder to shoulder, stuck for long periods waiting to be seen.

"It's what I've been seeing for the last few years," said Menendez March. "Because of the policies around accessing food grants, often what you end up getting is in the afternoon, a lot of people have been waiting a while. Appointments often run late because of understaffing. Yesterday when I went in all of the seats in reception were taken, with everyone was in very close proximity."

"For me the concerning thing is that Work and Income already have systems in place online and over the phone to access hardship grants. But because of the policies, once you reach over a certain limit – that is often quite small – you have to show you have exceptional circumstances. Once you hit a limit, you'll have to do a walk-in."

Such conditions contravene the government's current guidelines on physical distancing to prevent outbreaks of Covid-19. Menendez March says this is exacerbated by the reality that people seeking support from Work and Income are more likely to be living rough, or in overcrowded or poor-quality housing, have underlying health conditions, or be elderly. All of these factors could increase the severity and danger of a Covid-19 outbreak in this population.

For its part, Work and Income say they want to do whatever they can to meet the needs of beneficiaries. George van Ooyen, group general manager for client service delivery, said that "planning is in place to meet the increased demand for our services and for any changes in our services that may be needed in the future."

"Our services are continuously being reviewed, this includes looking at where we need extra staff and how we will support them to work safely."

Regarding the need for in-person appointments, van Ooyen said Ministry of Health guidelines will be followed as the situation develops. "We are asking clients who are unwell or in self-isolation to follow the Ministry of Health advice about limiting contact with others and not to come into our offices."

"If someone has an appointment and is unwell, or in self-isolation, we ask that they phone us and we will do what we can to help over the phone."

However, Menendez March says some beneficiaries don't have a working phone, or access to the internet. And there is a perception amongst beneficiaries that they get better results by being there in person. One woman sitting in the AAAP waiting room who needed advocacy support for an emergency housing application was adamant that she would only get what she needed if she turned up and spoke to a case manager face-to-face. Many aspects of the Work and Income system rely on the case manager's discretion.

Menendez March said it doesn't have to be like this. He argues that much of bureaucracy relating to emergency food and housing could be avoided if main benefit levels were raised, so that people didn't need to make other claims to survive.

*Jane is a pseudonym.