A disabling bug

May 19th, 2014 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Sarah Wilson writes in the Nelson Mail:

I had a stomach bug. That’s all it was. A bit of an upset, when I was in Bali for a friend’s wedding two years ago.

Most of us did – even the bride and groom had a couple days spent in their rooms. But when I got home . . . the pain didn’t stop.

It would come and go, but then I’d have weeks where I couldn’t get out of bed, and I didn’t know why.

I lost weight. Foods that had never been a problem made me vomit. I stopped consuming gluten, dairy, alcohol. Nothing made a difference.

Six months later, I was finally diagnosed with an intestinal bug called Dientamoeba fragilis. It’s nasty. But not as nasty as what was about to happen. …

I was in hospital for about 12 days. It should have been longer, but I discharged myself after being told that I now probably had ulcerative colitis, which is an incurable auto-immune bowel disease.

Eventually this diagnosis was revoked . . . but nothing was put in its place.

I had no proper diagnosis. I had no prognosis – no-one knew when I would get better.

I had to quit work and go through the harrowing process of applying for a sickness benefit – at a time when I couldn’t even get out of bed.

My work was everything to me. I felt empty, lost. Betrayed by my own immune system, which continued to flare out of control.

It’s now a year since I was in hospital – almost two since I first got sick.

I’ve made tiny amounts of progress. I can get around on my own, mostly.

I walk with a cane, because often I’m too weak and too sore to stand up alone. My body reacts badly to a large number of foods and, even if I can manage to eat enough, my system doesn’t extract or retain the nutrients.

I’m constantly undernourished and extremely tired. I’ve had to write this all in bits, and afterwards I’ll have to go and sit down for a while.

Frustrating isn’t the word for it. Frustrating doesn’t begin to cover the fury I’ve felt, going from being a healthy 26-year-old – to being bedridden, quitting work, losing friends.

To having a visible and debilitating disability.

Being disabled is political. It’s public, especially when it means that the world around you no longer fits your needs.

It’s not surprising to me that I have ended up using what limited energy I have to fight for disability rights – which is what my battle with Work and Income is really about.

Sarah’s story is gripping, and as you read it I guess the reaction is that this could have happened to me – it was just a bug after all.

Sarah has become an activist on welfare issues, after her frustrations with WINZ – which she wrote about here. WINZ has apologised for what happened.

But it does highlight that there is a balancing act with welfare reforms, and how WINZ implements them. And we shouldn’t assume the balance is absolutely right.

There are some on welfare who are able to work, and some of the measures introduced are necessary to target them.

But there are also many on welfare who have had horrible things happen to them, and a system which makes them prove every x months they are still unable to work needs some flexibility and judgement involved.

UPDATE: Sarah has written a sort of response to this blog, on her blog.

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The truth at the end of the story

August 19th, 2013 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar
  1. The Herald spends ten paragraphs on a story that claims WINZ purchase cards exclude tampons as a non essential expense. The first 10 paras are:

A financially strapped job seeker says she was told by Auckland Work and Income staff she could not use a supermarket card for tampons or sanitary pads because they were considered luxury items.

The Ministry of Social Development has said the only items that cannot be bought on payment cards are electronics, appliances, alcohol and cigarettes.

The allegation has ignited a storm on social media after blogger Tulia Thompson wrote about it and described it as “institutionalised sexism”.

Ms Thompson said the incident happened about six weeks ago at the Queen Street Winz office.

The woman was provided with a supermarket card and told it was for “necessity items only” and she could not use it for various “luxury items” including tampons and pads, she said.

“Supermarket cards are only given out when the beneficiary is in serious financial hardship. Nevertheless, the exclusion of tampons and pads from the list of ‘necessity items’ that beneficiaries can buy when in financial hardship is a fairly extreme example of institutionalised sexism,” she said.

Ms Thompson said another woman tried to use a Winz supermarket card at the check-out at her local supermarket, and the card didn’t work.

“The cashier called Winz to find out why the card wouldn’t work, and found out it was because she had tampons amongst the items she was purchasing. She had to return them.”

Ms Thompson said another woman had contacted her in response to the blog to say the same thing had happened to her at a supermarket and the reason her card was rejected was because her sanitary item had been incorrectly labelled in the supermarket system to “pull-ups”.

Ms Thompson said clearly there needed to be better communication between supermarkets and Winz to ensure women were not embarrassed at the check-out counter.

Only if you make it all the way past 10 paragraphs of allegations, do you get the response:

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Social Development said any claims that female hygiene products could not be purchased using the Work and Income payment card were “totally untrue“.

Individual items are not tagged on payment cards. If someone’s card doesn’t work, it would be for a system reason and not because of what the person bought.

“The only items banned from purchase on the payment cards are electronics, appliances, alcohol and cigarettes.”

So the entire story is based on a false allegation. I would have thought you either then don’t run a story, or you make it very clear at the beginning of the story that it is a false allegation. The mention in paragraph two doesn’t actually refute the story to the degree that paragraph 11 does.

The story headline is:

Tampons a ‘luxury item’ – Work and Income staff

That makes it look like a direct quote from a WINZ staffer, when in fact it is an third hand allegation.

Just for good measure, the story includes half a dozen outraged tweets from people, based on the false allegation.

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The value of data-matching

July 18th, 2013 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Stuff reports:

More than 3000 alleged welfare cheats receiving a total of $33.7 million a year have been caught in the past six months.

The Government says the findings are the result of a new way of sharing information between Inland Revenue and the Ministry of Social Development which started this while it is also looking at tying the amount of money they have to pay back to their wages in a bid to recoup costs faster.

Associate social development minister Chester Borrows said a total of 3139 people were caught in the investigation, with 1948 on an unemployment benefit and 559 on a sickness benefit.

He said the ministry believed it would be able to prove a ”big chunk of them” were intentionally defrauding the taxpayer though some could have been a legitimate oversight, he said.

”The fact is that these 3139 have been found to be paying more tax than they should have been if they were only earning their $100 a week maximum that they were allowed to on a benefit so there is obviously a reason for suspicion there,” he said.

That’s a great practical example of the value of being able to have IRD and WINZ check data with each other.

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You want fair, but not a soft touch

September 16th, 2012 at 7:39 am by David Farrar

Andrea Vance at Stuff reports:

Work and Income is using “chequebook doctors” to move sick claimants off welfare, advocates say.

State insurer ACC has been criticised for paying medical assessors to examine long-term clients, and lawyers and claimant groups have questioned the assessors’ independence, calling them “hatchet men and women”.

Now those charges are being levelled at Winz. Critics say it is operating a similar system by employing almost 300 “designated doctors” to assess beneficiaries.

Advocates will of course have a negative view of anyone who disagrees with their clients getting the benefit they want. They often have a philosophical view that anyone should be able to get welfare, with no work testing.

A key difference with ACC is there is legitimate criticism that some of the ACC designated doctors do nothing but ACC cases, and are dependent on ACC for most of their income. WINZ has 300 designated doctors who reviews 3,000 cases a year so the average doctor does one case a month.

 

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Being on the dole

December 5th, 2011 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

A reader has sent in this guest post about their experiences of being on the dole and with WINZ:

I became unemployed in 2009. It was my choice, and it was a bad choice. I was hoping to move jobs and thanks to the recession, both my plan a and backup plan fell over. After 6 months of living off savings and some Working for Families money, I applied for the dole.

I generally found WINZ to be really helpful and some people I worked with really bent over backwards for me, even when I wasn’t worried about things. Pretty much every case worker sympathized at the lack of jobs, and acknowledged that there really wasn’t much that I could do.

However when I had to renew my dole after the 1 year mark I ran into some issues. I had taken myself off the dole over the summer while I tried to build up a small business I had started. I actually was told I should not be trying to create a business but should be looking for work. As a result of my initiative and in spite of having 3 interviews in the previous few weeks as well as me delaying my reapplication and actually going without income for several days on the hope that I would not have to reapply*, the Case worker decided I was a proud, lazy bludger and cast around for suitable torture. Having discovered that I was ineligible for one course due to actually having been a productive member of society(!), I was enrolled in a “course” for work seekers that turned out afterwards to be a weekly, early-morning commitment.

Well, I turned up every week. Typically, about 6 people who were supposed to did not. They started the process of being kicked off the benefit. Many who did show up didn’t have a CV, including one fellow who had been “looking for work” for over a year. We were told one week that the WINZ staff at that office had been calling people up, and almost no one had been answering their cell phones. The point was well made – would you get a job if an employer rang?

As for the course, it consisted of

A warning about what would happen if we didn’t show up for the course.
Looking through the WINZ web site for jobs that might possibly be suitable

As an experienced professional who’d found several jobs without any help from WINZ, and had a WINZ work broker wonder in amazement that I hadn’t found employment, it was humiliating. There were of course no jobs on offer for my skill set. But I did apply for several more basic jobs and got one interview. It did make me think about what I had to do to get a job, and made it clear that sitting on my bum was unacceptable.

Because, see that’s the thing. When there’s no sales being made on trademe, and there’s no interviews in sight, and the business that’s looking for a hundred non-skilled workers doesn’t even bother to reply to your application, you start to get depressed. And yet the dole payments, the working for families tax credits keep rolling in. That combination of discouragements and easy money is corrosive. I was actually better off unemployed financially than I had ever been for many years employed – and with hours of free time to boot. I would have been a fool if I hadn’t seriously considered making it a long term lifestyle.

In the end, I got a job by looking in other places. We moved city. It was a massive upheaval and traumatic for my family, but I am now a productive member of society.

One thing that helped the transition was the IWTC. Because of that extra income our Working for Families doesn’t drop and helps fund my travel to work and other extra costs. I can’t believe anyone would want to give that bonus money to people who don’t work – if you’re not leaving the house your costs are much, much lower.

I was out of work for almost 2 years. Yes, there are few jobs. But forcing people to get out and look is a good thing. Making them re-apply for the dole is a good thing. Forcing them to regular courses is a good thing (how on earth will someone who can’t get out of bed once a week get out of bed every day for a job?). Giving people a  financial incentive to work is a good thing.

As Labour says, there are people on the benefit who want to get out and work. No one doubts that. But there are also a large number who find it easier to sit at home and collect free money from the government. Society pays people the dole on the condition that they are looking for work, and I find it extraordinary that the measly token gestures such as the National party have made are so vigorously decryed by those who “support” people like me – long term unemployed. Instead of supporting them, they merely make the issue worse.

What would I do?

  • I would reduce (yes, reduce) the amount of working for families paid to beneficiaries and increase accommodation payments. It was my observation that payments are actually quite generous for people with no accommodation costs, but in places like Auckland those costs are crippling.
  • I would have people required to behave much more like they are in work. Many people are simply not employable because they have habits that are simply not compatible with being employable. Having them turning up *every* day for courses or sign-ins at normal work hours would be a minimum. Actually getting together people with complementary skills and seeing what they can produce. Encouraging out-of-the-box solutions.
  • At worst, I would like to see WINZ have work available that pays that anyone can just walk into off the street if they’re prepared to do it. Frankly there were times when I’d have quite happily shoveled manure all day and back again if I’d earned a dollar for it, just so I could be counted as working. I’m not talking work-for-the-dole here, I’m talking work for a little more pay than the dole, as a morale booster.

* My wife was castigated by another staff member for my recklessness when she visited the office for another matter. She was almost reduced to tears in fact. Which makes what happened even all the more bizarre.

Always great to have a first hand perspective.

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Earning less by being in work

March 24th, 2010 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

The Press reports:

Christchurch woman Cassey Quy, 29, quit her job in a flood of tears after three months.

As a single parent looking after her four-year-old son Riley, she gets $357 a week on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB), with some bills being paid by Work and Income.

Struggling to make ends meet, she took a part-time job as a laboratory assistant at Canterbury University in January.

After advice from a Work and Income case worker, Quy believed she would be better off by $100 per week.

However, her part-benefit, part-wage income left her $10 a week worse off.

After the Government changes were announced yesterday, Quy said she was scared she would fall back into debt.

“It doesn’t make sense, working but not earning money,” she said.

“It’s like the Government is punishing us.

I feel very sorry for Ms Quy, as no one should end up worse off by going into work. One of the changes announced yesterday will help a bit, by increasing the threshold before your benefit rebates from $80 a week to$100 a week.

In theory it should be near impossible to be worse off, by taking up work. There are high abatement rates on the main benefit and sometimes the accommodation supplement, but income from Working for Families should not decrease if you replace benefit income with work income – in fact the in work payment should make you better off.

It would have been useful if The Press had asked for and/or printed the details of how much the job she moved to was paying, because this would have allowed verification of the figures. By this I don’t mean that Ms Quy is misrepresenting them – more that she may be missing out on something she is eligible for – such as WFF.

Its frustrating that the story doesn’t detail why the combined income is $100 a week less than what WINZ estimated. Were WINZ wrong, or is some benefit not being fully claimed?

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Meet the Bludgers

December 22nd, 2009 at 9:31 am by David Farrar

Colin Espiner reports in The Press:

Information obtained by The Press shows Marcia Harris and her husband, former gang leader Darryl Harris, have claimed unemployment and sickness benefits continuously since 1984.

25 years without working.

They are one of about 300 couples who draw about $1000 a week in benefits from the taxpayer and are the subjects of a government audit.

So why work if you can get taxpayers to give you $1,000 a week?

They have four children, three of whom are also drawing benefits.

What a surprise! What I can’t work out is how they get $1,000 a week, if at most they have one dependent child.

In addition, they have received $30,000 in special-needs grants since 2000, including $16,000 in the past two years.

Life must be tough on $1,000 a week.

Among the successful applications were grants to put new tyres on the couple’s 2007 silver Chrysler saloon and to fence a swimming pool at one of several properties the family owns in Christchurch.

Well the silver Chrysler must look its best, so of course the taxpayer should pay for new tyres. And if you own multiple properties, then again the taxpayer is who should pay for fencing the swimming pool.

Recent efforts to cancel Darryl Harris’ sickness benefit failed after he obtained a medical opinion stating he was addicted to cannabis.

Sadly, he probably is. But people can beat addictions – and I don’t see a lot of incentives for him to do so.

The opinion was from one of Work and Income’s “designated doctors” after the agency appealed against a medical opinion that Harris was suffering from “stress and anxiety” over being work-tested.

Oh the poor baby. He hasn’t had to work for 25 years, but the stress of being work-tested in itself made him so stressed out he was not able to work.

This year Marcia Harris was ordered to repay some benefits granted by Work and Income, including one to pay for her car to be released after being impounded. She was driving without a licence at the time.

Well that is hardly her fault. Society is to blame, so only fair us taxpayers pay.

Work and Income paid for the family to spend 10 nights at a Christchurch hotel, the Towers on the Park, in 2007 after their Islington home burnt down, a review of the family’s case found.

I am sure the burning down was a freak of nature, and had nothing to do with gangs. Hopefully the Towers on the Park was adequate for them It is only 4.5 stars and they may have suffered from it not being a five star hotel.

Since then the family has been transferred to a special “remote monitoring” unit. The unit deals with Work and Income clients deemed too dangerous for face-to-face meetings with staff.

If they are too dangerous to meet with staff, then maybe they are too dangerous to receive $1,000 a week?

Bennett said she planned to introduce pledges made by National during last year’s election campaign but shelved this year because of the recession.

They include work-testing for domestic purpose beneficiaries whose youngest child has turned six, compulsory budgeting advice sessions for beneficiaries who claim frequent grants, and part-time work obligations for some sickness and invalid beneficiaries.

The Government plans to suspend or reduce benefits for those who refuse to comply with requests to attend work interviews or take up work opportunities.

Can’t happen quickly enough.

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Stupid

March 29th, 2009 at 7:41 am by David Farrar

Declaring your partner on Bebo, yet telling WINZ you live alone so you get an extra $340 a week in benefit, has to rank as one of the more stupid things someone can do.

Good to see WINZ on the ball.

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WINZ emergency grants

December 21st, 2008 at 10:23 am by David Farrar

The HoS has the story of an WINZ emergency grant paid to reclaim a car, after the Police impounded it. This is despite the fact the owner had no legal license.

My thoughts are iceberg and tip.

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