Thirty-five roles are to be cut in an overhaul of Work and Income's regional offices prompting claims from Labour that the changes will increase the workload of busy frontline staff.
Work and Income's National Commissioner Carl Crafar, confirmed this afternoon that the ministry has commenced a review of back-office structures and functions in its 11 regional headquarters.
The review was revealed by Labour's social development spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern this morning.
Crafar said the proposal would mean a total of 35 fewer roles in its regional offices but said that because of current vacancies, it would not translate to 35 job losses, he said.
It was not known how many jobs would be lost as a result. The review would look at ''reporting lines and the type of back-office roles and positions that are currently in place''.
It had been 10 years since the last regional review.
''Since then the organisation, the client population and the way we work with people have all changed, meaning new positions have been created and some older positions are no longer necessary.''
Crafar added that ''welfare reform implementation has gone smoothly, and this process will not impact on the ability of our frontline staff to continue to deliver on it''.
Affected staff were advised about the review earlier this week, he said.
Crafar said no service centre or frontline roles would be impacted, he said, adding 500 frontline staff were added a result of the October and July Welfare Reform changes.
However, Ardern disputed this.
"We are already hearing stories of frontline staff being stretched to capacity. Now it seems they will potentially have to cope with even fewer resources, and enormous upheaval,'' Ardern said.
"To tell staff - struggling to handle an extra 80,000 clients with new obligations - that their regional offices are facing sudden reorganisation is absolutely extraordinary.''
Asking staff to also cope with restructuring was unfair, she said.
"The welfare system is already in chaos in the wake of these reforms. These changes will make the situation even worse. Ultimately it will be those who use its services who will pay the price.''
The Public Service Association said it was "surprised and alarmed" at the announcement and criticised the lack of transparency around the plans.
"It seems like bad practice and very bad timing. Work and Income staff are already bracing themselves for the extra 80,000 clients that they will have to support as part of the reforms, so more change and uncertainty is alarming," National Secretary Brenda Pilott said.
"Staff at Work and Income need security and continuity in the workplace to enable them to deliver the increase in services."
The PSA also raised concerns about how the department had already concluded there would be 35 fewer jobs before the review had ended.
Social Development minister Paula Bennett's office refused to comment saying it was an operational matter.
Ardern said Work and Income staff were ''the very people that are delivering her welfare reforms and if they are in chaos that affects Work and Income clients''.
The changes come after the third wave of welfare reforms were introduced last week.
The changes included reducing the number of benefits, putting more onus on beneficiaries to find work and introducing compulsory drug testing for beneficiaries when required by employers.
Work and Income case managers will also work more intensively with beneficiaries to find them jobs.
CYF REVIEW UNDERWAY
Elsewhere in the ministry, Child Youth and Family (CYF) has launched a wide-ranging review of social worker case loads following claims social workers are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the number and complexity of cases.
The CYF review comes as social workers are increasingly turning to unions for support after the number of CYF notifications almost doubled over the past six years to 153,000, prompting complaints from workers.
Labour has accused the Government of failing to meet its own time frames in some serious cases of neglect - allegations it furiously denies, saying it is a record-keeping issue rather than a lack of response.
The ministry has started a workload review to understand a social worker's caseload decisions, what makes up a caseload, the complexity of the caseload and how they are managed.
It will also look at the level of work within cases and the number and distribution of staff across sites.
Unions say social workers are struggling to keep up and fear they are not giving each case the attention it requires.
Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers chief executive Lucy Sandford Reed said they were increasingly hearing from social workers feeling under pressure and a number had taken sick leave and stress leave "because of the demand of dealing with those cases".
"There's a limit in my opinion as to how many of those really intense, complex, difficult cases you can deal with at any one time," she said.
"They are draining, they are not pleasant.
"They do it, and they do their very best by them but day in day out dealing with that hard-end social work practice is draining, it is wearing and if you're not given a break from it it eventually wears you down."
Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott agreed.
"We regularly hear from social workers that they feel under a lot of pressure and they feel concerned that with the best will in the world they're not necessarily able to give enough time to every case and they obviously want to be able to do that," she said.
Social workers were concerned that the pressure of the increased number of notifications is putting pressure on that system.
"There's no greater fear for a social worker than they're going to miss something important and the consequences of that happening can literally be life and death," she said.
Pilott said the review, which was a thorough look at what constituted a social worker case load and the process of dealing with CYF notifications, was something they had wanted to see for some time.
She did not think they could come up with a "magic case-load figure" but said they could develop some indicators which provided an acceptable range.
More importantly it would give an indication of the total number of social workers required to deal with the level of notifications, she said.
The complexity of cases and experience levels of social workers were already taken into account, Pilott said.
She did not know whether tweaks to the system or a fundamental overhaul was needed, she said.
"It's a very important question and I'm pleased this project is going to be looking at that, and it needs to look at it with a great deal of honesty, and see if we are able to find some solutions to problems like that."
The review is expected to be completed by December and will be reviewed by a panel of external experts.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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