Sick writer's beneficiary fight

HUMILIATED: Chronically ill Nelson woman Sarah Wilson's dealings with WINZ have left her feeling frustrated and depressed.
HUMILIATED: Chronically ill Nelson woman Sarah Wilson's dealings with WINZ have left her feeling frustrated and depressed.

A Nelson woman is putting her health on the line to fight for the rights of her fellow beneficiaries.

Chronically ill writer Sarah Wilson is fighting against the welfare system she finds "frustrating, depressing, anxiety-inducing, dehumanising and debilitating".

She had enlisted the help of Nelson Labour MP Maryan Street who read Wilson's accounts about her dealings with Work and Income and agreed there needed to be "change from the top".

Wilson was calling on other beneficiaries to send her their stories about dealings with Work and Income, which  Street said she would use to campaign for change.

Wilson had been writing about her dealings with the Nelson branch of Work and Income since she went on a sickness benefit a year ago. She had to stop working as she developed a debilitating, chronic illness. She was moved to the Job Seekers benefit after the major welfare reforms last year.

However, Wilson said her dealings with Work and Income showed legislation was not working and the culture at Work and Income offices was "dehumanising".

A recent post on her website, had made waves over the past week where she has written about her dealings with the Nelson Work and Income office.

The piece, titled "Terror and humiliation - just another day with WINZ", caught the attention of MPs, fellow beneficiaries and advocates across New Zealand. It has had about 30,000 views so far. Her website usually gets about 2500 hits a week.

In it she described how over the past year she has received the disability allowance, but this came up for review last month. She was asked to provide evidence and documentation that she still needed it. This included doctor, food and prescription receipts. She said getting this documentation was difficult but she did her "absolute best" to get them.

However, her allowance was reduced, as she was not able to provide enough documentation to hold on to it. The proof that she had previously supplied was not in the system. Her appointment at Work and Income to sort it out left her frustrated and in tears.

"While I cried, the WINZ worker I was talking to stopped what he was doing, and clapped."

He was clapping as part of a new initiative where the office will applaud if a beneficiary finds work - an initiative  Wilson called "horrifying" and "insensitive".

After publicly voicing her frustrations on her website, she was given another appointment where her case manager worked through all her entitlements. She was also met at the door by the regional director of WINZ, Wendy Chisnall, and offered an apology about the service she received.

However, Wilson refused to accept it, and was inspired to fight for change for other beneficiaries who were too sick to fight themselves.

"We shouldn't have to fight so hard to get support we are entitled to."

Chisnall did not respond to direct questions on this issue.

In a statement she wrote: "The service provided to Wilson did not meet our usual standards.

"We have apologised for this and have taken steps to put things right. We have kept Sarah informed about what we have done to rectify the situation.

"Our staff work hard to provide a quality service in Nelson and to support people in need. I am proud of the good work they do.

"If anybody has concerns with the service they have received I encourage them to contact us directly."

Wilson said she had already received plenty of negative feedback for standing up for the rights of beneficiaries, with people telling her if she is well enough to fight then she is well enough to work.

"Before I went to hospital I was working from my bed, with a bucket next to me when I threw up. That's how much I wanted to keep working."

She was well aware of the stigma attached with being on a benefit. "It's an awful feeling".

"The work I have been doing is of great personal cost to me. I am making myself vulnerable, sharing things about my own case."

However, she felt the fight was worth it.

"People are sending me their stories. I am going to collaborate them as evidence that I don't stand alone.

"Everyone has a story, they are just not all written down. People have a chance to be heard.

"I have a loud voice, not a lot of people do. If people feel disparaged and disenfranchised and they want to be heard then I will hear them."

She said she could not promise change, but hoped her efforts would spark people to want to see changes in the way beneficiaries were treated.

That change needed to come from the top, from government policy she said.

"The case managers are working within the policy, the policy is the problem."

Street had been following Wilson over social media and met with her last week over her blog posts that had gained so much attention.

"I do feel for many of the case managers," Street said.

"The pressure they are under is both unrealistic and inhuman.

"Having said that, I think there is a real need for this particular service to have another look at itself. I'm sure it's not their wish to trample over people like Sarah."

She was working with Wilson to collect other stories on other perceived Work and Income failings.

She said there was something "systematically wrong" with the service across the country.

"The solution has to come from the top - a change in culture - and there needs to be a change of policy.

"You can't beat people off their benefits and into work, you have to support people."

She was also "deeply disturbed" about the clapping initiative.

"That does not reinforce good behaviours, it exposes everyone else in the office who isn't getting applause to greater feelings of worthlessness than they already had when they walked in."

Street had hoped to meet with Work and Income Nelson this week but was awaiting confirmation.

The Nelson Mail