Welfare staff hit, abused
Threats and fists have been flying in Work and Income offices across New Zealand, with Manawatu staff among 54 people physically assaulted at work last year, new figures reveal.
Work and Income staff reported 3757 incidents of abusive client behaviour in 2012, including 448 classified as "serious abuse" - 54 cases of physical abuse and 394 verbal.
Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett said the numbers, obtained by the Manawatu Standard under the Official Information Act, were unacceptable.
"We should never accept this behaviour as just ‘part of the job' - there is no justification for it whatsoever."
But the union representing staff said recent government welfare reforms that tightened up on benefits could cause even more friction.
In the wider Manawatu, 18 serious threats were made against staff and four people were assaulted.
Cases of obscene behaviour, foul language and racial comments that were abusive, but not considered threatening, were also reported.
Work and Income Central spokeswoman Kelly Dawson said the numbers did not make nice reading, even though they were a fraction of a percentage of clients who walked through the doors.
"OK, those numbers might be small on the grand scale of things, and they might be small compared to other parts of the country, but that's still four of our staff that have been assaulted and for that to happen is crap."
Work and Income offices were open plan, with security guards and closed-circuit television cameras in operation, but sometimes people who came in just wanted someone to abuse, Mrs Dawson said.
"All our staff go through de-escalation training, because the last thing you want to do is wind people up when they are at their most vulnerable.
"We used to have panic buttons in private interview rooms, but we're done with those and instead we're teaching staff to recognise signs and how to respond to those."
PSA union secretary Brenda Pilott said threats and abuse happened in most workplaces, and although there were concerns that it had become worse for Work and Income staff recently, it was not possible to say for certain that it was.
"It is something we will be keeping a close eye on, but from what we know, staff feel confident about the health and safety processes which have been put in place to deal with it," she said.
Deputy chief executive of Work and Income Debbie Power said abusive or threatening behaviour towards frontline staff was treated seriously, and the organisation was complying with the Health and Safety in Employment Act.
If it felt it was necessary, Work and Income was not reluctant to trespass clients, with 346 trespass notices issued last year because of repeated or serious abuse, she said.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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