12 May 2024

MSD receives almost 5000 complaints about staff in two years

4:01 pm on 12 May 2024
Work and Income offices

Work and Income offices Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

People seeking support from Work and Income say Ministry of Social Development staff are lacking compassion.

In the past two years, the ministry has received close to 5000 complaints in relation to MSD staff's bad handling of clients looking for help.

But the ministry claimed the complaints were only a tiny portion of the number of interactions it had with clients overall.

Sue Taylor, 57, sought help from Work and Income (WINZ) after losing her rental in Ashhurst in January.

"I said [to MSD] 'I've got nowhere to live, I'm homeless' and she said they would have to look at emergency housing options. But when I told her I had two support dogs, she said she couldn't help, and that was it.

"She didn't say [MSD could] try and find someone that would take me that night or whatever... no, I was left alone."

The Manawatū woman, who suffered from severe depression, spent more than four months living in her car with her pets while trying to find a place that would accept the two dogs.

She went back to Work and Income for help but said the treatment she received from staff pushed her away from the very own agency meant to help her.

"They treat everyone like trash, like a number. Even the security guards [at WINZ], they hover around you like they are just waiting for you to show an emotion, they're ready to bounce. That's how it feels.

"I was once telling [WINZ] my struggle and the case manager was humming a song while I was in absolute tears. The list goes on and on."

Taylor said contacting Work and Income became a stressful experience she would rather not face alone.

"It got to the point where I just couldn't go there alone because of the anxiety that it caused me was huge. The only way I would go there was with a support person."

'Time to heal' - MSD client

Sajay Singh, 47, was also a victim of MSD staff behaviour.

In January he was shouted at during a call with his WINZ case manager, who told him to "shut up" and "go rob a bank".

"When I had that interaction with WINZ, when he told me to go rob a bank, at that time I really felt depressed and mentally unstable, because then that was all I could think of, that degrading comment.

"That still affects me at this time ... I keep still thinking about that and I think it might take me some time to actually heal through that process of that mental trauma that it has given me."

"He made me feel like I was worth nothing," Sajay Singh said of a Work and Income case manager.

Sajay Singh had been living out of his vehicle after moving out of a boarding house paid for by Work and Income where he said he did not feel safe. Photo: RNZ / Rayssa Almeida

After RNZ exposed his story, Singh received housing support from MSD and an apology for what the ministry called "unacceptable language".

However, the ministry declined to disclose if the case manager involved was still employed by MSD, citing privacy and employment matters.

"I was grateful that my story got out because after that, all of a sudden [WINZ] wanted to help me, they were calling me five to 10 times a day, asking me in what way they could help me," Singh said.

"If they had done that prior, I wouldn't have gone through all this stress. I was fortunate I had that [phone call] recording and I was able to show people what we actually go through when we try and ask help from MSD."

Complaints number only a tiny proportion of overall interactions - MSD

Taylor and Singh were among the 4786 people who placed complaints against MSD staff over the past two years.

The complaints related to clients feeling belittled during an appointment, staff members being abrupt on the phone or at reception, and not listening to the client.

However, MSD said the complaints represented a tiny proportion of the overall interactions with clients over the same period.

The ministry said the complaints represented less than 0.1 percent of the interactions with clients over the two-year period.

"We answer approximately 3.9 million calls a year and have hundreds of thousands of face-to-face interactions in our service centres with clients," MSD group general manager client service deliver Jayne Russell said.

But Singh claimed the number could be higher, as not everyone had the means to place formal complaints.

"When I tried to make a complaint, I couldn't do the it over the phone to anyone and I'd imagine a lot more people would be in the same position.

"I bet it will be over 500,000 complaints if everyone knew how to [place a complaint], and if they were in a good head space to do so after an interaction like that."

'We won't get it right every time' - MSD

Russell said Work and Income took the responsibility it had to clients very seriously, and all its staff were experienced in working with clients who had high and complex needs.

"However our business is a people business, and we won't get it right every time, and we continue to work to improve the services we provide to clients," she said.

She said more than half of the complaints had been resolved with the client satisfied with the outcome, and that MSD had an ongoing programme of training and skills improvement for frontline staff, including Empathic Listening, Compassion and Manaakitanga.

'Low trust model' - advocate

Auckland Action Against Poverty spokesperson Brooke Stanley said MSD operated in a low-trust model.

"It's quite common for us to hear from people that come in to seek our support about how dehumanising the culture is at Work and Income.

"[MSD] treats people coming in to see them as if they're suspicious, or the support that they need they could have gotten it elsewhere."

She said the charity was frequently asked to engage volunteers to attend WINZ meetings with clients, and outcomes would normally be better when an advocate was present as support person.

The charity had been calling for MSD to operate in a high-trust model, Stanley said.

"It's important to have people working at MSD that have empathy, that have compassion, that have non-judgment for people coming in. Often the people who are seeking support have really high and complex needs and are dealing with a lot, extremely stressed out burned out.

"It helps to have people on the other side of the desk that are actually there to support people and to remind them of their power. And there should be no judgement in the way that they deliver their service."

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