Work and Income slammed by advocates after 'starving' beneficiaries forced to wait hours for help

"Starving" beneficiaries are said to be waiting hours on the phone to ask Work and Income for extra money.

A rise in unemployment is putting pressure on the Ministry of Social Development as it hurries to recruit more call centre staff.

Joshua Hiku, who has spent 20 years on a benefit, called Work and Income one morning this week to notify them of a change in his address - and he had to wait a while.

"Half an hour to over an hour, even longer sometimes... Close to two hours," the 46-year-old tells Newshub.

He wants a job in music but is relying on a benefit to get by.

"It's been quite difficult sometimes."

Data obtained by Newshub shows the average wait time for Work and Income to answer the phone hit 40 minutes in October and November, and it doesn't have a target timeframe to strive for.

The owner of a south Auckland food bank says the wait is much longer if you ask for a call back. 

"People come in here to use my phone and they've been sitting here for four, five hours waiting for callbacks that never happen," owner of Waka of Caring Debbie Munroe says.

"When they do happen, they're turned down for a food parcel."

She has a stern message for the Ministry of Social Development.

"Sort your bloody shit out. There are people who are starving."

The ministry's acting CEO Viv Rickard says they are making changes.

"We've put another 300 people into our contact centres and established a new one in the South Island to deal with the increased demand," he says.

"It's just that we're busy. There's a lot of people ringing us and January is a busy period."

Since the COVID-19 lockdown, walk-ins at Work and Income offices are being discouraged. But with 12.5 percent of the working-age population now receiving a benefit, its phone lines are under immense pressure. 

"But can I say, we're actually answering the calls," Rickard adds.

But Munroe says they're not answering quick enough for those on the other end of the line.

"Our kids, our elderly are suffering, and it's not right, this is New Zealand," she says.