In this blog I’ve written a lot about the everyday interactions in the Work and Income offices. These interactions generally aren’t pleasant. But it’s not just the one-on-one interactions with staff that impact beneficiaries. Framing these interactions is the physical environment at Work and Income.
Participants in my research repeatedly stressed their dislike of the Work and Income offices. While they pointed out that these were usually modern and clean, many of the people I spoke to reported that the way the offices were arranged emphasised their feelings of marginalisation.
Jayne: …There’s no toilet, no toilet facilities, there’s not even water, not any water. You try and sit there for two hours really pregnant with nowhere to go and then they tell you if you go over the road there’s some public toilets out there. There’s no way you’re gonna go there ‘cause you’re scared that you’re gonna lose your place and being a pregnant woman the facilities are just not there and I found it frustrating, like you feel like you’re at the bottom of the pool.
Stephanie: And if you need to use the toilet, you’ve got to get a key. You go with the guard and he unlocks the toilet. Like, what are you gonna do?
Sydney: Do you?
Stephanie: Yeah. I’ve been to the toilet once when my son needed to go, it was following the guard up this lift and then he opened the toilet with a key and then waited outside for us and locked it and then went back down. To use a toilet.
Sydney: I wonder what they think you’re gonna do?
Stephanie: It was pretty ridiculous. And most waiting rooms have a water thing or, you know, especially when you’re waiting that long, or magazines. It’s just not a normal waiting room.
The way these women speak about the environment at Work and Income reflects a way of thinking about social spaces. Many of the participants made comparisons to other public waiting rooms in order to emphasise the disparities between Work and Income offices and social practice in wider New Zealand society. There are certain norms of waiting in this country: the organisation will take steps to increase the comfort of those they cannot see immediately. It will provide water, magazines and access to toilet facilities. These are things that according to Stephanie happen in a “normal waiting room”. Making facilities such as toilets available and providing magazines and water emphasises to an organisation’s clients that their wellbeing is of concern. Comparisons with doctors’ waiting rooms were made by many of the women I spoke to emphasising the difference in the facilities available in places where they had also experienced long waits. Implicit in these comparisons was an acknowledgment that their wellbeing and level of comfort was not a concern at Work and Income.
In both accounts above participants refer to the long wait times in offices. This complaint was repeated throughout the groups as the women I spoke to described feeling as if their time was worthless. As one participant articulated “they’re paid to work with you but you’re not worth their time”.
Kirsten: You walk in and it doesn’t matter how many people are in the waiting bit, it could be two, it could be 20 and you see the staff and they’re facing you. They sit in front of their computers with no one in front of them and you’re scheduled, you’re booked in, you’ve organised yourself and organised your child. You’re there a couple of minutes in advance and you wait and you wait and you wait while they’re sitting there with no one in front of them and more people come and you wait and you wait and then they kind of get up, walk over, they won’t look at anyone in the eye, and then they do a quick look up, call whoever it is. You just think that’s so insulting.
Amy: And it’s like despite the fact they expect you to work and your time should be worth something your time’s not worth anything once you enter there and they never say sorry. I’ve never had anyone go “thanks for waiting” or “sorry for waiting” or anything like that, never.
April:There’s no compassion if you’re late, like I turned up for an appointment once five minutes late because I had something happen that was out of my control and she said “no, I’m sorry, we can’t put you through, you’ll have to rebook”. I said “I have to see you about this now; this is urgent”. She said “no, well sorry”, like no mercy some of them.
Holly: I’ve had that so many times
Amy: It’s okay for them to make you wait, but not vice versa
This focus group excerpt summarises a number of issues participants repeatedly raised during the discussions. Kirsten emphasises the long wait times. This is exacerbated by the fact that from the waiting room she can see staff siting at their desks without clients in front of them. Participants throughout the groups reported waiting for long periods of time seeing staff sitting at empty desks, taking breaks or having collegial chats with co-workers. They reported feeling ignored by staff, of watching but not being looked at it return. These “looking relations” have been described by bell hooks as the denial of an individual’s subjectivity. The subsequent invisibility of those who watch she describes as dehumanising and oppressive. That beneficiaries feel “relegated to the realm of invisibility” is evident from their accounts of time spent in waiting rooms. Participants highlighted their powerlessness in these descriptions: they must quietly sit, wait and watch as caseworkers prioritise their place in their working schedule. The longer the wait, the clearer their place in the hierarchy of Work and Income becomes.
Many participants expressed the belief that they were deliberately made to wait, emphasising the lack of control they had in their interactions with Work and Income. Wait times in the offices were particularly difficult for mothers of young children. Beneficiaries with young children have a choice: they can either arrange for childcare or take children in with them. While there was the acknowledgement that meetings were smoother without children present, many participants were unable or unwilling to pay for childcare to attend a meeting with Work and Income. Bringing children with them, however, could be problematic as the majority of offices did not provide toys for the children. Participants related stories of the difficulties of keeping children entertained in an environment in which food is prohibited and children were reprimanded by staff for misbehaving. This further reinforced their position in the offices as these actions were interpreted as a reflection on their parenting skills. Many of the women were well aware that inherent in welfare discourses is the supposition that “we don’t actually look after our children” and their inability to counter the public denunciation of their parenting skills by Work and Income staff (for fear of jeopardising their appointment) further reinforced their feelings of powerlessness.
A number of researchers have emphasised that the social stratification in the waiting room is generally related to power. It is humiliating to be kept waiting. Those who are kept waiting feel that they lack status. This is not a new concept. Research from 1975 concluded that “to be kept waiting – especially to be kept waiting for an unusually long while – is to be the subject of an assertion that one’s own time (and therefore one’s social worth) is less valuable than the time and worth of the one who imposes the wait” (Schwartz, 1975 p. 30). Add to this the further humiliation of having no access to toilet facilities, or of being escorted to toilets by a security guard, and of being forced to keep children quiet in offices that provide no toys and do not allow food, and it becomes very clear that the Work and Income environment itself is designed to further marginalise the clients it is supposed to serve.
Auyero, J. (2011). Patients of the State: An Ethnographic Account of Poor people’s waiting. Latin American Research Review, 46(1), 5-29.
hooks, b. (1992). Representing whiteness in the black imagination. New York: Routledge.
Schwartz, B. (1974). Queuing and Waiting: Studies in the Social Organization of Access and Delay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
 Access to toilet facilities varied in accounts. Participants reported that some Work and Income offices did not have toilets available for client use. Other offices did provide access but clients would need to be accompanied by a security guard who would unlock the door and relock it after use.