Things were slowly getting better now that I was back home and starting to come to terms with living with a disability. Now I just had to tackle WINZ. Work and Income New Zealand is the branch of the Ministry of Social Development in charge of providing financial assistance and employment services throughout New Zealand. In other words, it’s where you go to sign on for the dole.
Apart from being briefly on a Jobseeker benefit after being made redundant in 2015, I’d had little to do with WINZ and I would have much preferred to have kept it that way. My recent experience had been relatively painless but unfortunately as soon as a disability is factored into the WINZ equation, a whole raft of exhausting paperwork materialises that is made exasperatingly worse because you have … a disability. The social worker at Burwood Hospital had been enormously obliging by helping me to complete the voluminous paperwork required to access my ‘entitlements’. I would have completely lost the will to live if I’d had to navigate through all that alone.
The day after I was discharged from hospital I received my first payment from WINZ along with a letter saying I had two weeks before I needed to attend courses, work assessments and make myself available for work. No mention was made of my disability and as I was confined to a wheelchair, I was obviously unable to drive and had no access to public transport with disabled facilities. How on earth did they expect me to go out looking for jobs? Neither did I feel confident that two weeks would be sufficient time to rid myself of the overwhelming exhaustion that is part and parcel of MS and look for work when the simple act of taking a shower took me half the morning to accomplish.
The next correspondence I had from WINZ arrived the following week. It was a photocopy of one page of my Disability Certificate. The YES/NO box saying, “Does this person have a disability that meets the Disability Allowance criteria” hadn’t been ticked even though the rest of the form gave full details and a Work & Income Work Capacity Certificate had been submitted a month earlier ticked, signed and completed by the hospital stating, “poor mobility, bowel & bladder control, fatigue and pain associated with multiple sclerosis”. Using the biggest felt pen I could find, I ticked the stupid box only to find myself faced with another problem. I was unable to comply with their request to return the form in person. I phoned WINZ. Sending it in the post or by email wasn’t possible. I had to fax it. Thankfully I managed to find someone still using 1990’s technology and faxed it off hoping they weren’t still using thermal paper and that my certificate wouldn’t end up in a faded, yellowed state in the corner of some WINZ office.
The following day I received another letter from WINZ. “We understand you were admitted to hospital. Please phone us immediately. Unless you have ongoing costs that you can’t meet, your benefit will reduce to $43.45 per week from 30 December.” Aside from homeless individuals who might find themselves unfortunate enough to end up in hospital, who would fall into this category? Most people I met in hospital had homes they were either paying rent or a mortgage for, the cost of which would be ongoing regardless of whether they’d been admitted to hospital. Quite apart from the fact that WINZ must have known I wasn’t still in hospital as I’d spoken to them on the phone, why send out a letter that must apply to only a very small percentage of the population? I phoned WINZ. I was told to ignore the letter. I was starting to dread these ignorable communiqués from WINZ.
On the bright side, I was feeling a bit more confident and although I still had mobility and fatigue issues, I found I was able to do a few hours work from home for my previous employer. I went online and declared this income to WINZ. It was pretty meagre since I couldn’t do much in the way of hours but at least it was a step in the right direction. I received an online letter from WINZ within hours to say that my benefit had been suspended and I owed them money. I repaid a portion of what they thought I owed but I was still waiting for a resolution on the disability allowances that they owed me, but that I had heard nothing whatsoever about.
I contacted the hospital social worker and she was able to get someone from WINZ in Auckland to phone me. There had been an earthquake in Kaikoura the previous month and this had made them terribly behind with their paperwork. The form that I had gone to such great pains to fax through with the big tick in the disability box, hadn’t been processed. Furthermore, it now couldn’t be processed because my benefit had been suspended due to my previous earnings declarations being slightly over the benefit allowance.
I needed to put my current position into perspective so I read Angela’s Ashes from cover to cover and listened to Leonard Cohen.
It’s strange how the Kaikoura earthquake can cause a three-week delay processing my disability certificate, yet an online declaration of earnings can trigger an overnight letter in a heartbeat. A letter that ended with a spiel about attending interviews and courses and about how l must accept any suitable job offer of work for at least 30 hours a week and provide evidence to WINZ of what I’m doing towards this. There were even helpful suggestions about contacting employers in my area and visiting employment agencies. Fat chance.
By this stage I wasn’t only feeling depressed, I was angry. I’m sure I’m not the first person who has just had their life turned upside down with a distressing diagnosis only to find they have to put up with this sort of stressful and inappropriate correspondence. I phoned WINZ. I was told to ignore the letter as it was computer generated and my disability allowance was in the process of being investigated and actioned. I’m happy to say that this finally came to pass but I feel desperately sorry for anyone in this position who may have a more upsetting and debilitating condition than I do and who might be less capable than me of dealing with this sort of inane crap.
I am unsurprised by the fact that state beneficiaries are often the ones who suffer from mental health problems, particularly depression. I also feel sorry for the staff at WINZ because their dysfunctional system pushes people to such levels of frustration that it puts them in the firing line for all kinds of abuse for things that aren’t necessarily their fault. Why is there not such a thing as a Sickness Benefit? And why did I have to keep sending off Medical Certificates every three months when I have an incurable disease. Do WINZ know something about a forthcoming cure for MS that no-one else does? Why must they treat people with genuine disabilities as full-time job seekers when they are physically and mentally incapable of pursuing that course of action. Not only is it intimidating, it’s inhumane.
Furthermore, it would go a long way to preserving the mental wellbeing of this vulnerable group if we weren’t being constantly overwhelmed with a tsunami of irrelevant system-generated correspondence. Perhaps I should write The Beginners Guide to WINZ Correspondence You Can Safely Ignore as it’s impossible to know when to take it seriously and or when to chuck it in the bin.
People with disabilities haven’t deliberately made some sort of lifestyle choice. Most have paid their taxes and like me, have struck a hurdle and only want to be in a position to pay their living expenses. Let’s face it, no-one in their right mind would willingly choose to get caught up in the peculiarities of this unfathomable system.