A recent article on Stuff reports that MSD security costs last year topped $20 million as information released by the Ministry under the Official Information Act highlighted significant increases in security incidents at Work and Income offices. The article proposes that beneficiaries are not getting their correct entitlements and are responding angrily.
The Ministry’s response is that complaints account for “less than one per cent” of all interactions. Furthermore, the article cites the Ministry’s Deputy Chief Executive of Service Delivery Ruth Bound as saying “I don’t accept the assertion that when we get the correct information from clients that our staff do not give them what they are entitled to.”
Essentially the Ministry is proposing that only a small number of interactions are unsatisfactory from the client’s point of view; and further that when there are problems it is probably the client’s fault for not providing correct information in the first place.
This is quite an astonishing assertion. Report after report after report has reiterated that clients experience poor treatment when dealing with Work and Income. Research projects dating back for decades have repeatedly highlighted negative interactions between clients and Work and Income staff members. Respondents interviewed for a research project examining discrimination experienced by people with mental illness reported overwhelmingly negative exchanges with staff at Work and Income. Diesfeld et al (2006) reported similar findings in a literature review focusing on the legal needs of people with disabilities. A report by the Alternative Welfare Working Group (2010), based on a series of public meetings with beneficiaries throughout New Zealand, proposed that; “while some people do have positive experiences with Work and Income, many others feel the MSD has become more harassing and intimidatory in recent times”. In a study with sole parent families, Waldegrave et al. (2011) similarly reported that many families experienced “negative and stereotyping interactions” from staff at Work and Income. These reports were widespread amongst 60 families interviewed across three ethnicities: Pakeha, Maori and Pacific. In research that I have cited a number of times on this blog, Community Law Canterbury highlighted the dehumanising treatment of beneficiaries by Work and Income.
In my own research participants repeatedly gave accounts of being disparaged and demeaned in their encounters with Work and Income case managers:
Amy: [Going into Work and Income] was hideous. It was really hideous. You’re at a really low point in your life often and …the people that are there are not sympathetic or pleasant or helpful.
Caitlin: It’s really sad ‘cause it’s not just WINZ in Christchurch, it’s WINZ everywhere, ‘cause I’ve been to WINZ in Wellington and Gisborne and they’re just all the same. They just treat you bad. They just actually treat you bad.
Penny: The case managers at WINZ … the way that they can be is quite insulting.
There is overwhelming evidence that people are treated poorly in Work and Income offices around the country. The Ministry has been ignoring this evidence for decades. Instead it uses the small number of complaints received to support the contention that staff members are treating clients courteously. Yet inexplicably (at least when considering the small number of complaints) their security bill continues to soar because of “a large rise in reported moderate and serious verbal abuse”.
It doesn’t take much of a mental stretch to work out why the complaint numbers aren’t higher. Here’s an excerpt from one of the interviews I conducted in my recent research:
Claire: When you’ve had problems there, have you ever gone to a manager or complained about anything?
Rose: I don’t complain at all.
Tiresa: I never complain.
Rose: I complain to my social worker. And I feel sorry for her. [laughter]
Rose: But no.
Tiresa: [laughs] I can’t say anything to [Work and Income] but when my social worker comes, and then I had to complain to her.
Rose: You open up to them. [laughter]
Claire: Is that ‘cause you feel you can’t say anything to them ‘cause it might affect your benefit?
Tiresa: Yes, exactly.
Yes exactly. Beneficiaries are reliant upon the money they receive from Work and Income. They are amongst some of the most vulnerable people in society and, with the huge imbalance of power in their relationship with Work and Income, the majority do not make formal complaints for fear that it will impact on their payments. This seems so glaringly obvious that it begs the question why have MSD not engaged with this issue before and instead chosen to rely upon complaint’s statistics to justify claims of good service?
What about the other claim in the news article – that staff consistently notify people of their full entitlements? Given the demand at the recent “impact” organised by anti-poverty campaigner Sue Bradford in South Auckland, it seems unlikely. The three-day event involved 100 Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) volunteers and 30 Work and Income staff working to help beneficiaries with their entitlements. Such was the demand that people began queuing at 6.30am to be seen and many had to be turned away. As Bradford commented: “The irony is that what we’re doing over these three days is what WINZ should be doing every day”.
In other words, huge numbers of beneficiaries are not able to access their full entitlements without interventions from beneficiary advocates. This claim is supported in all of the reports I have cited above, and in my own research, which found that many beneficiaries were unclear about their entitlements and the abatement levels for their benefits. While Ruth Bound from MSD may blame clients for giving incorrect information, this is not supported in any research I have found. Women I spoke to repeatedly complained about the confusing and contradictory information that they received from case managers.
Case managers at Work and Income have a difficult job. They are often dealing with very vulnerable clients. Many clients are experiencing challenging life circumstances, some have health issues. These things can impact on a person’s ability to communicate effectively. Some clients react angrily when denied access to entitlements. Dealing with these issues is an essential part of the job and case managers should be trained to handle such interactions sensitively and effectively. There is overwhelming evidence that this is not happening. In the face of this evidence, the Ministry’s ongoing denial that there is an issue with client-staff interactions seems ludicrous.