GUEST BLOG: Kate Davis – Cultivating Tragedy: The Culture of WINZ

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The last time I personally required assistance from WINZ was in early 2012. I didn’t know what, if anything, I was eligible for or how they could assist me, mainly I needed information and support. I began by calling the 0800 number and after several attempts at explaining I didn’t really know what I wanted I managed to get an appointment. It wasn’t easy.

When I turned up at the desk the receptionist asked for my forms. Of course I didn’t have any. She was impatient and she was sharp. She asked questions I couldn’t answer. I tried to explain I needed help and advice but apparently, that isn’t their job. I should know all of that from the website. I tried to explain that the information I required was not on the site. She relented and told me to take a seat.

I sat down trying to keep it together. I sat looking at my hands, hoping no one would come in and recognise me or even worse ask why I was there. I wouldn’t be able to answer. What could I say? Everyone else seemed to be making a point of not catching each other’s eye. It was like there was some tacit agreement to show respect by failing to acknowledge our presence. All except one woman who was sitting farthest away from me, with a baby on her knee and a toddler playing on the floor in front of us. When I looked up she looked back at me. It wasn’t quite a smile but she nodded and sat up straighter, squaring her shoulders. She didn’t say a thing but her message was clear. I took a deep breath.
As I waited I was getting more and more anxious. My appointment time had passed three quarters of an hour ago. I was worried about being out of the house for longer than I anticipated. There was no one I could phone. No one knew. When my name was called I jumped.

The woman was officious. She said her name and then asked how she could help. I replied I didn’t know. She sighed. She asked if I had filled in an application. I told her I didn’t know for what. She was becoming slightly agitated and her voice was becoming strident. Finally I managed to say ‘My husband is sick.’

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As I said it out loud for the first time, my eyes filled up. I took a deep breath.

The officious lady started to speak at me. She asked if I could still work, I replied I could but I wanted to know if I could get home help. She had no idea. She was only there to advice about benefits. She asked about our income and I told her that we had some money but I wasn’t sure for how long. ‘Why not?’

I couldn’t answer straight away. I looked around the big open room, busy with strangers trying to formulate my next sentence. I asked if there was a private room. I knew there wasn’t. I don’t why I asked except in my head I thought there should be. For times like this, for situations like mine, there should be rooms. I remember even as I thought about the private rooms, I looked over to the woman on my left and saw her wiping her face with her sleeve and I thought ‘I bet she wants a private room as well.’ She had her own tragedy to explain. Every person at every desk did. What made my situation different? Finally I started to speak and at the same time I started to cry.

‘My husband has terminal cancer and I don’t know what to do or who can help. I thought you might know? ’

‘When he dies you will be eligible for a widow’s benefit.’

I left. My Doctor ended up supplying all the information I needed. Then there was Hospice and they were both professional and empathetic. It turns out that Hospice have a WINZ liaison. What a shame the case worker I met didn’t know that.

Now I do some volunteer work as an advocate for beneficiaries. I have seen people treated far worse than I was. My story is nothing. I often hear people in the media, or academics talking about the culture of WINZ. On occasion I even use the phrase but I wonder if people who have not accessed WINZ over the last six years know what this means.

At best the current culture of WINZ involves checking your pride and dignity at the door. It means waiting because your time is of no value and no matter what is happening in your home, or your life, or to your loved ones it is of no consequence because tragedies unfold at WINZ every day.

Kate Davis is completing her B.A English & politics. Previously she has worked for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective & currently volunteers as an advocate for Auckland Action Against Poverty.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Good story Kate.
    In that it points out so well, how life is when you are forced to succumb and reach out for help from WINZ. The blatant re-traumatising of people who are already suffering a trauma – as you were, and as I was.

    You reach out for help and get slapped away by evil.

    I know that some people say, that there are good people who work at WINZ – but where are they hiding?

    And I know some people say that they are only doing their jobs the way they are told to do them by those higher up the ladder- But who told them to treat everyone with such callous disrespect? Were they really told this by their higerups? And why?

    Or is the main reason they got the job in the first place, because they passed the psychological profiliing test when they first applied for the position.
    This being the same test they use to employ frontline staff at ACC.

    Glad you survived Kate. Bless you.

    Opinion.

    • Glad you managed to get the support that was needed, even if WINZ wasn’t initially there to help.

      It seems like those that work at WINZ have an under-resourced and high pressure work environment. Seems like the WINZ employees are sent memos encouraging them to be difficult and try to limit assistance, while abandoning their humanity. Not that all WINZ workers are like those you met.

      With a government that not was focused on hiding unemployment and poverty, and instead wants to provide all assistance that is necessary people wouldn’t be attacking WINZ offices and those with mental illness would be receiving medical treatment.

      These are tough times manufactured by an absent at the wheel government, which could easily be doing more.

  2. Receptionist? Our local office doesn’t even have that! You go in and sit down and wait….and wait…..until someone deigns to come over and ask what it is you want. If you are wanting to just drop documents off it can turn into a major time waster. Perhaps it is to further disempower and unsettle. Like you say, your time is of no value to them.
    They do have a security guard though who sits around reading paperbacks all day from what I have observed.

    • When accompanying people as an advocate doing a drop in with no appointment, I have had to wait for two hours in order to get an$80 food grant they should never have been declined in the first place.

      I agree the whole procedure is designed to drive you down. The result is degradation & despair. It is also a de-escalation strategy.

  3. After my business was destroyed by earthquakes , our rented house became unliveable and we decided to move to my house down south I had to go to WINZ for help . Being suddenly without an income sadly doesn’t mean that you also suddenly become without debt .
    During that horrible time of slinking into the WINZ office and forced to bare my personal details and my tears with other staffers and the general public , my much loved old Aunt died . She left me half her little house in Invercargill and a very small amount of cash , the other half going to her sister , my 70 year old other Aunt . After Public Trust took $20 k in ‘ administration fees ‘ and made payments to other parasites waiting like vultures , my living Aunt and I had small change and a tiny , rotting little house in South Invercargill which I had to paint and repair for sale .
    It was during that renovation period that I told WINZ of the house , as is my legal requirement . The woman staff member sat and tut tutted . She shook her head in sympathy . She lured information out of me then removed my ‘ entitlements ‘ and left me to try and survive on $132.00 a week because I had more than $8000.00 in ‘ capital ‘ in my dead Aunts house . I told her that I was lucky that my Aunts house was made of ginger bread so at least I could graze on it until it sold .
    It was during that time that I actually went hungry . It was during that time that my girl ( Sorry . Female human , full contact sex person and emotionally equal other Being . ) left me for Australia to care for her dog and her three gold fish . A dog cannot live by gold fish alone , so I discovered . Joke .
    WINZ Co Ltd is a drafting race to weed out the unfortunate to hand them onto prisons , black market economies and dysfunction . WINZ is a worthless , self serving organisation and needs to be disbanded , their hideous offices , full of bullshit and brain bending , reflective blame placing and weird distortions of reality should be bulldozed into a gully and buried for good .
    Those hokey , awful , overtly positive, toxic , glossy brochures promising gleeful full employment should be set on fire then pissed out .
    The staff at WINZ in my town could have cared less that I was in distress . They viewed me as an annoyance at best . They spoke to me as if I was trying-it-on to get more than I deserved and that hunger and humiliation was the price I must pay for an earthquake . And yes , they were all horrible people . There was no love in their hearts at all . No pragmatism . No wit or charm . They pissed about with vulnerable people . They gossiped and sniped . I think it’s the pattern on the carpet ? It’s warped their minds . They all worked in a vast shed of an office breathing one anothers air while they bullied the vulnerable for fun and profit . Uuugh ! No one with a good heart could bare that environment so I guess that’s where their status quo staff members must be born from .

    • You need a medal for relating your story Country Boy. Most of us just can’t. It’s dreadful that the women were killed in Ashburton but I still thought what I thought when I heard they were shot.

    • It is a strange paradox that as an advocate I have found some of the WINZ workers to be empathetic and helpful. To me. When I’m working for someone else.
      It’s easy to be empowered when advocating for others. It is hard advocating for your self. There is something of the herd mentality in the process. Leaving the weak & the lame to the lions.

  4. Well done Kate.

    One feels not just shame that WINZ has descended to such awful behaviour but great empathy for those like you that have to deal with the swine. The workers there seem to dislike the ‘clients’ instead of engaging their brains and realising that the neo liberal arseholes in charge are the problem.

    How can we help? Ha just kidding, how can we intimidate, frustrate and devalue and not inform you?

    Auckland Action Against Poverty needs a national organisation similar to Te Roopu in earlier days and regional advocates everywhere but how to fund is the searching question.

    • Yes Tiger Mountain, the AAAP do need to be all around the country.

      It would be interesting to go along for a WINZ appointment, and ask them to sponsor you to be a WINZ advocate, and can they help you find that job.
      Wonder what they would say to that.

  5. Kate and CountryBoy both of your stories touched me .. and I literally wanted to reach out and offer a hug a kind word a little signal that your hurt and horrible treatment at the hands of these people acknowledged…
    My only personal experiences in NZ in 27years have been on behalf of others but also in the main bereft of any vestige of humanity or anything remotely involved with empathy, especially for those experiencing loss or desertion and at times utter despair..
    I honestly thought I had seen the worst of this back in the UK when the unfortunate had to deal with grilles and robotic public servants who seemed to have had their hearts removed as a condition of employment.
    Not so..
    When my husband’s grandmother died virtually destitute, I won’t go into the details as they are still too raw, but it was truly awful and I vowed I would never allow anyone in my presence to be treated like it..
    5 years later I cannot imagine it would have improved and indeed your testaments how it hasn’t..
    Thankyou for sharing your stories and the best of luck to you…

  6. I too had involvement with WINZ. I found the staff rude, incompetent and arrogant. The appointment was for 8.45am and the office opened at 8.35am, five minutes late. I was seen at 9am by someone finishing her breakfast. I complained to the then minister and received a dismissive response. And all this happened when there was a Labour Government. The culture of callous contempt for clients was embedded in this organisation years before a National goverment.

        • I agree and Labours current policy on welfare holds little in the way of hope to address these issues. Nationals overall mandate is worse & becoming clearer & more confident as they continue to poll well. Prisoners and the unemployed are just an under exploited low waged work force.

  7. So sorry that someone totally empathetic was not there for you. It might have been me instead and I would have been able to empathise with you. I went to WINZ when I was made redundant for the first time in my life a year ago. I had been given redundancy payout and there is a delicate balance between looking for work and watching the bank balance dwindle, so I was down to a couple of hundred in the bank and no job before I applied for assistance.
    I have a full CV from a career lasting over 20 years, so imagine my shock having to report to cattle call at 8.30am to be put through a job-seekers seminar where someone less qualified than me treats the job seekers to a ridiculous one size fits all information session and proceeds to tell us that if we do not attend any interviews that we may be directed to attend that we will lose any entitlements. We then had to make a new appointment to see someone for assistance.
    I rang up the 0800 number and made the appointment while I was still sitting in the time wasting seminar, was told that there was a weeks waiting list, so I went downstairs and waited for a walk in appointment. I waited 2 hours to see someone.

    It was summer and the office entry way was by a self opening door that kept letting the hot air in and the cool air out. No water or toilets inside the building so if you were desperate you had to dash out to the public loo and hope your name wasnt called in the meantime. I had brought all my documents with me, so the person I eventually dealt with was very kind and immediately sorted me onto a benefit, accomodation supplement and temporary assistance. I left feeling quite disgusted with the process and decided I would not go through that ever again.

    While I was sitting there I noticed the people who should not have had to go through that process. The very ill looking woman who stood agitatedly waiting for her appointment, the elderly couple, the man with knee braces and a walker frame, the young mum with a toddler and a baby at her breast, all subject to the same humiliating and dehumanising process. It does not seem right that these people will be expected to find a job when they already have so many challenges and especially for the mum, two dependants that she will be expected to offload to strangers while she might be able to get a job as a cleaner earning less than the early childhood workers, whose own children are being looked after by someone else as well.

    What is wrong with this system is that family and values have been shafted in favour of business and profit. The profit model does not recognise that real people are suffering and the workers at WINZ are part of the chain of production. Many of them have very little training for the job and protect themselves from having feelings because they are being put in the front line when proud, independant people are driven to the point of desperation before presenting for help. It doesnt take a rocket scientist to figure out that there will be combustion when you rub combustible materials together.

    I was offered a job at WINZ and I would have had to take it if I did not have other options at the time. I do not think I would have been able to last very long carrying out the dehumanising agenda of the neoliberalists. So I do have empathy for the workers who might find themselves working on the frontline of a failure of successive governments to provide jobs, homes and security for families.

    I would not condemn all the workers at WINZ, because of a bad experience, but they certainly need some training with how to deal with people who are there for reasons beyond their control

  8. I get the impression tbat WINZ has a very high staff turnover, which ensures ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’. They begin learning the ropes, look for a better job, and get out asap. Many years ago I knew someone who worked for them. She told me she was only on around a dollar above minimum wage. The people she worked with were on the same and some resented the unemployed because it looked better than bein the working poor.

    If this is still the case, then the whole system is broken on both sides of the desk!

  9. While I’m not surprised in the least by anything I’m reading here I still feel sick reading it and have nothing but sympathy for everyone caught up in the nightmare which is WINZ and all I can do is wish you all the best.

    Totally different situation for me, I’ve been on Invalid’s for many years and can play the game pretty well. Having no assets, knowing all my entitlements (well most of the time- was caught out recently) and not having any work obligations helps a lot. But I’m in a position to see exactly how the culture of the organisation has changed since 1990 and can confirm yes, it’s been getting worse every year, but the last 6 years are another story completely. Noone is imagining things. I can also report that even Invalids that has always had the highest rate is now becoming so difficult to live on (and remember it’s longterm/permanent for many of us) that it’s severe chronic stress that exasserbates our health conditions.

    Even as someone who knows the system well, since case managers were taken away I can’t deal with physically going near an office and dealing with someone new every time and having to explain my medical situation over and over to justify my existence. WINZ is now responsible for acute relapses that often land me in hospital (which cost the taxpayer a hell of a lot more than a weeks benefit) to the point where I’m getting less than I”m entitled to because the stress of doing all the paperwork and dealing with them is too physically dangerous for me. And I’m not alone.

    Despite this, I’ve only ever encountered 2 really nasty front line workers, and one of them was under the last govt. The others have been really decent and done their best for me, apologising profusely at times that they just can’t do any more. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but many others I talk to haven’t had really bad experiences either. Not that I dispute that they happen, I don’t doubt that for a moment. But even with these nice frontline people, the number of times I’m found myself getting louder and louder, starting to yell at them out of total frustration and desperation because of the sometime completely illogical rules, without meaning to. It’s so easy to happen.

    Now this security clampdown has got me really worried, and quite honestly I am dreading thie next time I have to go to the office (as well as the fact it might send me to hospital again). We all knew after the tragic events there would be a backlash, and sure enough Paula has decreed we are now all potential criminals. I’m trying to imagine myself as a frontline worker right now and is this want I want to be safe at work? But is it their request, the Union, a kneejerk reaction, or another excuse for Paula to demonise us even more? Yes I’m cynical, but this is what happens when you’re worn down and permanently stressed. “Zero tolerance” for abuse is an admirable notion and we’d all love that to be the situation. But will she also implement “zero tolerance” for her staff not sticking to the rules and treating the public/clients badly?

    • I had a phone call from a woman at my local office about 20 minutes before I was due to go to the doc and My blood pressure was very high when I got there. That night I had 2 seizures. They are just senseless human beings who just over step their positions of authority

    • The invalids benefit used to be $30 more a week to cover health costs but that changed when they decided to make it one rate for all and give add ons. But winz do their best to give you as little as they can in your add ons.

    • First off, Case Managers still exist. They’re the people you sit down with when you have an appointment.

      Secondly, how is Work and Income responsible for ‘acute relapses’? Unless they’re making you do things that aggravate your illness, how is that possible?

      • You always see a different person, or whoever is available to take your apt. So they are still called case managers but they don’t actually manage your case like they used to. You have to tell your story over and over each time you go in, so for eg: Working woman, 2 children, married, leaves abusive marriage and goes into refuge. She loses everything she and the kids own as not safe to go back to get it. Also not safe to go to work, or take kids to daycare as ex will find her.
        She applies for benefit tells her story, needs medical costs for children, re-tells her story, needs bond for house, re-tells her story…. on and on. Every time recounting your horrific and sensitive past in an open office to a stranger that is really not interested in anything but making sure you have filled in forms and don’t get anything you’re not supposed to have.
        The case managers are not trained to deal with domestic violence or abuse survivors or people with say PTSD, anxiety, ect so they are unaware that they can and probably will re-trigger these people by using the wrong language. Also every case manager will throw in some helpful advice ‘Are you sure you can’t apologise and go back to him, it’s cheaper than renting’ (I heard that one myself!).
        Also, winz often asks you to do things that aggravate your illness or are unaware of what will or will not aggravate your illness and if you decline to do something they will force you because they just don’t believe you. Add on to that the stress you are constantly under dealing with them and you have a recipe for disaster.

      • You obviously have no idea whatsoever about mental illness. I suggest you educate yourself before opening your mouth. WINZ regularly causes relapses!!!

  10. The culture in WINZ has a deep history, going back well before the current iteration.

    My late mother was widowed in the early 1950s, when we were very small. No such thing as early childhood centres in those days, so perforce she went on the widow’s pension. The amount wasn’t generous, even in those days, but she was a superb manager of what money there was, and we got by, albeit with a lot of hand-me-downs, and without any extras of any sort. We were lucky also to have extended family support.

    But even then, the attitude of Social Welfare staff (as it was known then) was condescending and frequently rude. I vividly recall my mother coming home from an appointment grinding her teeth in fury at being treated, as she said, like a moron. This was a woman with a tertiary education, fallen on hard times through no fault of her own.

    People may also have forgotten that in the 1980s, an investigation of the Department of Social Welfare’s practices found a deeply-embedded culture of institutional racism. This resulted in significant changes in practice, along with efforts to change the culture. I don’t know how successful those efforts were at the time: I was neither a client nor a staffer. But I do have some experience of attempts to change cultures, and I know how bloody hard it can be; some would say it’s impossible without disestablishing an organisation and starting again. I wouldn’t disagree.

  11. Kate you poor thing. They should have been better than that towards you the heartless bastards. I don’t know if they are naturally heartless people who are drawn to work at winz or if they are created over time. If you don’t know what they can offer you they sure as hell won’t tell you. The trouble is the worst of them are never fired just moved elsewhere to continue their rein of terror.

    • Thank you Karen, though by using my own story as an illustration I aw only trying to highlight the prevelant culture and the fact that tragedy in WINZ is an everyday occurrence.

      It is now rare to have a designated case worker.

      It is not hard to get trespassed.

  12. A family member was discharged from two years in hospital 3 months ago. His Doctor subsequently filled out a Disability Application form and provided a letter of explanation to WINZ. The day before WINZ received the application the doctor passed away. Been waiting over two months now for a disability allowance payment. WINZ are claiming they cannot proccess the application because a deceased doctor is no longer a qualifying medically registered person. Unbelievable!!!!

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