MUST READ: A culture of denial at WINZ is what has put staff at risk

By   /   February 18, 2017  /   23 Comments

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A culture of denying people their rights has infected management layers at WINZ. Targets have been imposed on management for benefit denial and prosecuting those who have allegedly been overpaid for some reason.

How WINZ and the Government pretend to help

A culture of denying people their rights has infected management layers at WINZ. Targets have been imposed on management for benefit denial and prosecuting those who have allegedly been overpaid for some reason.

Form-filling and demands for documentation have grown exponentially. Grants have been replaced by loans which need to be repaid. 60% of those receiving a main benefit owe an average of $2500 each. Chasing down these “debts” has become a priority for management.

Stopping people without ID is just the latest twist to the story.

This week a 70-year old woman was told she had to make an appointment and go in to an office because she had changed banks. Putting the information in a letter was not acceptable.

A survey in the Auckland working class suburb of Otara by the Child Poverty Action Group found that 82% of families who have children with disabilities did not know they could be eligible for Work and Income support. Only 7.6% of families with a disabled child actually received any support!

These government-imposed polices have put at risk the health and safety of their own clients and directly employed staff and well as security guards and other contractors.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been denied benefits and other assistance over the last decade. This has resulted in a net loss of at least 100,000 families receiving a benefit. That is equivalent to removing a billion dollars a year from working class communites.

Poverty, homelessness, despair and suicide are the inevitable consequences.

A window into this cruel world was opened during a coronors hearing in late December last year into the death by suicide of a WINZ client after she was threatened with prosecution.

I commented on this case in an earlier blog. It was revealed that WINZ managers had to achieve a certain number of prosecutions and a certain amount of money recovered each month.

I have never heard of WINZ imposing a target for ensuring that everone knows about their entitlements and can access them easily.

A Radio NZ report of the suicide has additional details that need to be made available far and wide. They reported:

A mother believes her daughter would not have died if the Ministry of Social Development hadn’t threatened to prosecute her for welfare fraud.

Wendy Shoebridge was found dead in April 2011, the day after she had received a letter from the ministry telling her she owed them $22,400.

Not long after her death the ministry reduced the debt to about $5550.

Ms Shoebridge’s name was soon cleared and the ministry admitted she never should have been sent the letter in the first place.

The investigator who sent the letter is no longer at the ministry, which has made changes to the way it deals with prosecutions and vulnerable clients.

Ms Shoebridge’s mother, Barbara Cooke, said the family had not been able to move on in the five years since her daughter’s death.

“I haven’t been able to move forward.” Ms Cooke said. “I haven’t been able to progress in all that time. Life has been at a standstill with no progress since the moment of Wendy’s death … because of the fact we’ve had to wait so long for an inquest. We’re still waiting for the findings.”

Ms Cooke said her daughter struggled with depression and anxiety as well as being in a turbulent relationship at the time, something her mother believed was often the root of Wendy’s troubles.

At the end of 2010 her daughter had been working to improve her life and had found work at a service station, Ms Cooke said. She received an MSD letter telling her it would open a fraud investigation into payments she received from the ministry between December 2008 and October 2010.

“She got letters from WINZ saying that she’d been overpaid, she got contacted by MSD to say that there would be an investigator investigating,” Ms Cooke said.

After that, a letter warning of prosecution arrived.

“She came home from work on the second of April … at the end of her work shift and there was a letter waiting for her telling her she was to be referred for prosecution,” Ms Cooke said.

After a phone conversation with her daughter, Ms Cooke became immediately concerned.

“She sounded so dispirited and absolutely worn out, tired and really, really sad.

“I said Wendy I’ll come down, don’t worry, I’ll come down and help you.

“That was later in the day, I was too tired to drive down [to Wellington] at that time of day, she didn’t want me to … I said we’ll talk later then.”

She told her she loved her and wished she was with her. “I’m very grateful to have had the chance to say that.”

It was the last time Ms Cooke spoke with her daughter.

The next day police came to her home, near Palmerston North, and told her her daughter had been found dead.

She said her daughter would still be here today had the prosecution letter not been sent. The letter was frightening and had exacerbated Wendy’s already stressed life, she said.

After Ms Shoebridge’s death the ministry told Ms Cooke her daughter should not have received the prosecution letter, and apologised.

Yesterday a spokesperson for the ministry declined to respond to Ms Cooke’s comments, choosing to wait until the coroner releases her findings.

But the spokesperson said his thoughts were with the family during this time.

The inquest into Wendy Shoebridge’s death ended last week. The findings are reserved until next year.

Coroner Anna Tutton is waiting for lawyers’ submissions to be completed and handed in by 27 January.

We can only hope the coronor’s report finds someone responsible for this unneccessary death. As I argued in my earlier blog, in my view repsonsibility falls on the government, their policies, and in particular the Minister responsible at the time Paula Bennet.

The regime at WINZ has produced the inevitable reults.

In the last five years:

  • Verbal abuse or physical assault of Ministry of Social Development staff have doubled
  • Police notifications by staff at MSD saites have increased ten times
  • Trespass notices against WINZ cvlients have more than doubled

The MSD was found guilty of not adequately protecting its staff after the September 1, 2014, shooting of two MSD staff.

All staff need to be protected. But putting a minimum wage guard with little training outside without proper protective or communication tools is not an answer.

But the best protection is to have WINZ staff doing the job they were employed to do – assist people in obtaining help when times are tough.

 

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About the author

Mike Treen

National Director of Unite Union

23 Comments

  1. Pete says:

    When Trumps starts his war will his kids be on the front line or will they be parked up in some glitzy haven?

    When the Key/English regime started their war who were to be the ones on the front lines fighting? Their kids? Or other disposable minions?

    • It appears that the Trump Admninistration is hell-bent on a military confrontation with Iran, if this story at the New York Times can be taken at face value;

      Last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was exploring whether the Navy could intercept and board an Iranian ship to look for contraband weapons possibly headed to Houthi fighters in Yemen. The potential interdiction seemed in keeping with recent instructions from Mr. Trump, reinforced in meetings with Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, to crack down on Iran’s support of terrorism.

      But the ship was in international waters in the Arabian Sea, according to two officials. Mr. Mattis ultimately decided to set the operation aside, at least for now. White House officials said that was because news of the impending operation leaked, a threat to security that has helped fuel the move for the insider threat program. But others doubt whether there was enough basis in international law, and wondered what would happen if, in the early days of an administration that has already seen one botched military action in Yemen, American forces were suddenly in a firefight with the Iranian Navy.

      ref: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/12/us/politics/national-security-council-turmoil.html?_r=0

      Considering Trump’s criticism of the US treaty with Iran on preventing Iranian development of atomic weapons, and Steve Bannon’s neo-con, jingoistic militarist views (predicting impending war with China), that story appears credible.

      • Sam Sam says:

        Almost everything has lost its meaning, we say liberal/academic/identitirian/right/left so on and so forth which all have litteral and opposite meanings and increasingly we use the opposite meanings.

        Just look at at the OP (original post) MSD has lost its meaning because its own citizens which government reports to represent is treated as an invading force. So the concepts of work/progress/growth just doesn’t exist. Just take a look at Bill English, he’s one of the most anti gay in terms of voting on things concerning LGBT/ect and he’s at The Big Gay Out but what was discussed is his shearing abillity.

        I think all this is dangerous and others that people will be familiar with but it is worth mentioning that the Christchurch fires has civilised us to the extent of new avenues of giving have emerged, go funds is a phenomenon gaining exposure to older generations not accustomed to the digital world and its blowing them away in many ways because they didn’t think any one was listening. So there are in fact plenty of opportunities to do right.

      • Sam Sam says:

        Almost everything has lost its meaning, we say liberal/academic/identitirian/right/left so on and so forth which all have litteral and opposite meanings and increasingly we use the opposite meanings.

        Just look at at the OP (original post) MSD has lost its meaning because its own citizens which government reports to represent is treated as an invading force. So the concepts of work/progress/growth just doesn’t exist. Just take a look at Bill English, he’s one of the most anti gay in terms of voting on things concerning LGBT/ect and he’s at The Big Gay Out but what was discussed is his shearing abillity.

        I think all this is dangerous and others that people will be familiar with but it is worth mentioning that the Christchurch fires has civilised us to the extent of new avenues of giving have emerged, go funds is a phenomenon gaining exposure to older generations not accustomed to the digital world and its blowing them away in many ways because they didn’t think any one was listening. So there are in fact plenty of opportunities to do right.

    • SOPHIE says:

      the war your talking about that TRUMP is going to start,was started long before he got there,just that there was no one ,with enough balls to fight those in power THE RICH,THE POWERFUL and the RUTHLESS im afraid.Obama god bless his little old soul was to weak,and was pulled like a puppet on a string by these same people TRUMP is hitting on,yes he knows how it rolls,he knows how they became rich,he knows,why? because he was one of them.His so called ban muslim policy,come on thats not what he wants,he wants a SAFER COUNTRY FOR YOU GUYS,i didnt realize how people can just walk into AMERICA with no checks,no body finding out whether there connected to LETS BLOW UP AMERICA,what is so harmful in that having check points before entry into your country,if youve come in peacefully and no history then youve got no worries,so must be a lot of BAD EGGS in some of those batches,that they need to protest.The wall to mexico of cause there President doesnt want a wall,when his government can make more in one year dealing with drugs,meths,crystals ice you name it worth millions and millions of dollars, than worrying bout people scaling the fence over your country,one less for him to worry bout.wow a real WALL be to hard to smuggle into YOUR COUNTRY.SO yes TRUMP might be a bad egg trying to make good for the ordinary working class people of YOUR COUNTRY,YOUR HOME,YOUR SAFE HAVEN,think really clearly WHAT ARE YOUS REALLY AFRAID OF,IS IT CHANGE,IS IT THE UNKNOWN,IS IT THAT IS HOW YOUS REALLY WANT TO LIVE,many of america wanted change,wanted something new well they got it why cant the man be left to do his job,OH NO THE DEMOCRATICS are furious belittled and have been stomped on,GOODLUCK AMERICA.

      • Sam Sam says:

        You’ve got to get your orders of magnitude correct. Peanut alergies kill twice as many as US home grown muslim terrorists you seem to have a hard on for. And white supremacists kill 100’s and 1000’s more, the most famous killed by a white supremacist is John F Kennedy, a US president but i dont hear you calling for a ban on whites (happy to be corrected) many muslims before they get to the US go through UN vetting and less than 5% are denyed entry. So for years aurthorites check refugees paper work, recheck for any abnormalities, then once they arrive in the US they are constantky surveilled so i have no idea why you would wont to soend precious treasure putting a couple more barriers up at an airport.

        There is no honourable high ground in all this, no one is smarter than another, only relative positions of power matter. And shrinking them to managabke levels before things really get out of hand.

      • Mike in Auckland says:

        Yeah right, Trump the “freedom fighter”, gosh, they come out of hiding here also, the trumpeting Trumpistas. Where have you been hiding all those years? Are you a disillusioned, right wing Nat voter?

      • the war your talking about that TRUMP is going to start,was started long before he got there,just that there was no one ,with enough balls to fight those in power THE RICH,THE POWERFUL and the RUTHLESS

        Sophie, you do realise that Trump has filled his Cabinet with Wall St financiers (including ex Goldman Sachs), Republicans, One Percenters, and alt.right activists?

        So it’s unclear why you think Trump is going to ” fight those in power THE RICH,THE POWERFUL and the RUTHLESS” when those are the ones he’s been appointing.

        I’d be interested to learn where you’re getting your information from.

      • CLEANGREEN says:

        100% SOPHIE.

  2. This is an indication of the bureaucratic, paper-jungle mess created by WINZ: https://fmacskasy.wordpress.com/2015/07/16/winz-waste-and-wonky-numbers-up-date/

    All up, 73 pages of forms, leaflets, brochures, etc.

    That was two years ago.

    If the entire civil sector was run like WINZ, this country would be paralysed and would make a Stalinist regime look like the epitomy of corporate efficiency.

    All this, under a National regime.

    And all done to dissuade the most vulnerable from seeking the help they need.

    No wonder we have more and more beggars in our streets.

    • Once Was says:

      I didn’t see this comment @ Frank when posting below.
      The entire civil sector IS run like WINZ, its just that the rest of it has not yet caught up with the culture that is corporatist in nature.

      And let’s just look at a google search of the word ‘corporatism:
      corporatism
      ˈkɔːp(ə)rətɪz(ə)m/
      noun
      the control of a state or organization by large interest groups.
      “fascism was the high point of corporatism”

      It crept up and bit people on the bum then, why is it any different now?
      (perhaps things like short attention spans, yea/nah casuality, I I I me me me cults of personailty, populism, consumerism, marginalisation causing digital divides and de-education, escapism amongst the poor, children having children, fascist gangs – for whatever reason they were set up and whatever they hoped to achieve, greed, avarice ……………)

  3. Once Was says:

    “A culture of denying people their rights has infected management layers at WINZ”

    I’d go further, although WINZ is probably now the worst of ‘any and all’ of our Public Service entities:

    “A corporate culture has destroyed any notion of Public SERVICE”

    As things stand, the public service is not here to serve its public, but rather its Ministerial overlords. It now lacks independence and any degree of accountability – except to its responsible Ministers – all of whom are now well-versed in the art of evasion and obfuscation with trite little excuses such as “I can’t comment on operational matters” (that is, unless it suits).
    The worst part about it all is that there are front-line public servants bearing the brunt.
    Sure, we once had heads of departments and ministries that trembled in fear at a Muldoon, but who occasionally stood up to bullies or they resigned. Now we have a set of comfy little, overpaid arse-lickers who (by the very nature of the corporatised structure), see their responsibilities to a Munster rather than to a Public. They don’t like, and can’t handle any challenges as to their competence, and they’ll throw anything at a challenger in order to prove their self-importance and competence – even when the empirical evidence shows otherwise.
    Once again, I’ll ask the question of posters and commenters:
    Can anyone show me a department or ministry that isn’t dysfunctional. I can’t think of one and I’ve been trying very hard to.
    Whether its to do with social welfare, education, immigration, workplace safety and conditions, law enforcement, conservation,economic development ………
    I tell a lie! I can think of one that’s doing its best, but any signs of resisting ministerial/gummint intent are simply neutered by way of under-funding and under-resourcing. (I was thinking of Ombudsman and various judicial services).

  4. Once Was says:

    Oh, and btw, the fact that our public service (that isn’t) enables the right to argue for ‘small government’. You fuck the idea of public service through various means, then suggest that private, and non-government agencies can therefore do better.
    Eventually there are growing numbers that wake up – the natives get restless and the corporatists get worried and paranoid.
    A bolthole in Queenstown any1?
    We’re lucky, so far, that the natives haven’t become very, very restless because when that happens, there won’t be a gated-community or a diplomatic protection squad that’ll be capable of keeping them out (as history has shown)

  5. Strypey says:

    Speaking out on this is complicated by the tendency of NatACT apologists to deflect fair criticism of government policy by accusing critics of victim-blaming WINZ staff. It suits their agenda to drive a wedge between the PSA and leftist critics of creeping social welfare privatization. We do need to be careful not to come acoss like we’re blaming WINZ staff for the results of govt policy, but the PSA need to take a leaf out of Unite’s book and be equally careful not to blame beneficiaries for it. Only by having each others backs can both beneficiary rights advocate groups and the unions hold the NatACTs responsible and improve the situation for everyone.

  6. CLEANGREEN says:

    Yes once was Tim,

    I think aa honest rusting local compassionate Lawyer should represent all WINZ clients that have been offensively treated like dirt and take a case to the Haman rights Commissioner as there is a clear case here for sure.

    Election year is a very opportune time, to kick Nactional in the balls.

  7. Andrea says:

    “can only hope the coronor’s report finds someone responsible”

    Oh, just a rare rotten apple?

    Some over-zealous and busy person who accidentally took a form letter, maybe squiggled an unreadable ‘signature’, and popped it in the out tray? Made a filing error, perhaps?

    And MSD sails on with a wad of bubble gum over the teeny hole in the hull.

    Mike – we don’t need some fool skewered on a pin of oprobrium.
    We want the whole stinking mass cleaned and repurposed.

    Don’t wait for the lily-livered Greens and Labour. Nor the mighty mouthy mob from Mana. They all have swivel eyes looking over the shoulder at the mythical ‘middle’from whence all power and perks derive. They’ve failed all along the way, for years and years and years.

    The fourth Labour government started the slow death of the public service – among many other arrogant changes. Perhaps it’s because they’re the party for working people – and the unemployed or unwell aren’t. Just as National hasn’t much time or support for the ’employees’ of the nation.

    Don’t wait for help from politicians. They probably won’t twitch until they’ve been swamped by a bazillion letters from irate seniors and small biz owners threatening to vote for NZ First after their disgusting treatment by WINZ. And serve them right.

  8. Mike in Auckland says:

    An excellent and succinct post by Mike Treen, I must say.

    People who are sick and disabled face pressures, like many others, and I am absolutely certain, that among the many suicides we have in New Zealand, a significant number of them may be by persons who were on benefits.

    WINZ now uses contracted providers to “help” people come off benefits and to get referred into jobs. We have a situation where a client is expected to sign an agreement with such a provider, who requires the person to make every effort to get into work, to dress “appropriately”, to ensure they “maintain sound mental health” and many other things. Once referred, the client is dependent on the provider, who can lay down the rules as they please, within the realm of contracts with WINZ.

    They get paid fees for successful referrals, which puts pressure on the provider to get people off benefits and into whatever jobs, and hence the provider will see to it to put “expectations” in the persons referred to them, to bloody well get on with it, and take up a job.

    Bill English was answering to questions in Parliament this past week, again making comments such as: “We are working to help people get into jobs, to become independent”, or “to get the independence they want”, which is total BS.

    All that happens is people change dependence on state support with dependence on an employer, who is likely to exploit her/him, possibly paying only the minimum wage.

    If a person struggles and cannot meet the expectations of an employer and of the job in a very competitive job market, then she/he will end up out of the door again, and will have to jump through the ever higher held hoops at WiNZ.

    And yes, I have read OIA info where MSD clearly stated that they set targets for branches of WINZ and thus for their staff, which means exactly what Mike has written about. This means they will make it hard for people to get onto a benefit, with for instance expected “pre benefit activities”, with endless forms to fill in, and with documents to prove things needing to be presented. They will also put direct or indirect pressure and expectations on WINZ clients, to get off the benefit.

    See just for instance how they have “trained” Designated Doctors” to make the decisions that are more in the interest of MSD, rather than the client with sickness and disability.

    They have lowered the age for children for sole parents that are exempted from work obligations, now it is so low, sole parents have only two or three years to focus fully on their newborn child, as once that age is reached, there come part time work obligations.

    So Bill English and Tolley may go on about “helping” people on benefits, with supposed “supports” that are nowhere to be found, and with a supposed “benefit increase after 40 years”, but the number of clients that benefit from any like this is rather small.

    Smoke and mirrors, endless BS and lies is the modus operandi at WINZ, so yes, the staff face more unhappy and stressed out clients, and that is the reason for more assaults, abuse and even the murders in Ashburton. It is the government that should have been in the dock at the High Court after those shootings, rather than a mentally unstable and destroyed Mr Tully.

    http://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/designated-doctors-used-by-work-and-income-some-also-used-by-acc-the-truth-about-them/

    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.files.wordpress.com/2016/10/designated-doctors-used-by-winz-msd-the-truth-about-them-post-upd-18-10-2016.pdf

    http://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/work-ability-assessments-done-for-work-and-income-a-revealing-fact-study-part-a/

    http://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/work-ability-assessments-done-for-work-and-income-a-revealing-fact-study-part-d/

    http://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/advice-to-winz-beneficiaries-facing-medical-examinations-and-work-ability-assessments/

    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/msd-and-dr-david-bratt-present-misleading-evidence-claiming-worklessness-causes-poor-health/

    http://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2014/10/19/nz-finance-minister-bill-english-insults-beneficiaries-with-mansel-aylwards-work-will-set-you-free-approach/

  9. JustMe says:

    The Little Hitler Syndrome is alive and well at WINZ offices throughout NZ.

    I have worked for WiNZ and I have also been a beneficiary. And so I have seen both sides of the counter as one would say.

    Back in the 90s one WINZ manager was referred to by a member of the public as a “Gestapo-ed Little Twit”.

    The problem is alot of managers in WINZ offices tend to let power go to their heads. They think they can lord it over whomever walks through the door asking for a benefit or for help in bills.

    There are alot of chiefs and not many indians in WINZ. I saw it first hand whilst working for this government department.

  10. saveNZ says:

    Agree 100%. It is not just WINZ but many corporates that do not offer the service they are supposed to be providing and have untrained and indifferent staff and illogical systems in place – which tend to be to stop people from getting what they are genuinely entitled too, while actually diverting more money to lawyers and accountants and consultants who don’t need it.

    Insurance comes to mind as well as WINZ.

    We are in a Kafka world of nonsense on post Planet Key and we need to jettison the National government to enter back to 100% pure NZ dimension of fairness and social justice ASAP.

  11. Michal says:

    My daughter applied for a sickness many years ago, I, her stroppy mother, accompanied her. There was no hassle. But I looked at the long line of people waiting to be seen and I thought every single one of you vulnerable people needs an advocate, there must be dozens of lawyers and other professionals who could make themselves available to do this sort of thing.

    Personally I also feel for the security guards who are having to look at lists and make calls on whether a person can go in or not. I bet that is not part of the contract they signed up to and nor should it be given the pathetic wages they are paid.

  12. CLEANGREEN says:

    Yes SAVENZ 100% correct.

    When I left School and had my first job at Woolworths in 1959 I was told by the store manager always remember “the customer is always right”

    “Treat them with respect and always smile and this has carried me through my trade as an Electrician and telephone technician but today the whole retail and services industry is so rude and treats customers with bad vibes now, I just can’t deal with this and still treat anyone with respect, but I guess I’m just old school.

    There is one thing my parents always taught me that what comes around goes around so those who have wronged will learn one day the error of their ways.

  13. Tragically, I think someone is going to have another crack at a W.I.N.Z. office with a gun. The whole culture of W.I.N.Z. is oppressive to the clients, cultivates a deep and abiding sense of distrust and discourages mutual respect for one another.

    Some of the staff treat you as if you are just out of jail. Others treat you as if you are one who probably should be in jail.

    It is not that there are not good staff there. I have met several who seemed to genuinely care, but the whole department and the Act that governs it is shot.



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