I just had my benefit suspended during a fucking pandemic

I am a member of the working poor and so still need state welfare to make rent. So I had booked an appointment for yesterday with my caseworker at Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) to apply for a transition to work grant. However the current health advice in New Zealand around coronavirus (COVID-19) caused me to skip the appointment, and follow all the instructions to avoid public transport and crowds. This is because my current work at a bar puts me at higher risk of contracting coronavirus because I am constantly serving people and surrounded by crowds of customers. I often have to touch customers when I am running food and picking up glasses, so I am constantly having to go against official health advice about CoronaVirus. I have been trying my best to avoid any other situations where I will be near or in crowds to both reduce my chances of either becoming a carrier, or transmitting the virus if I already am. I figured that given the appointment was not mandatory, because it had absolutely nothing to do with my ‘looking for work obligations’, my caseworker wouldn’t be so heartless as to cut me off. 

HOW. WRONG. I. WAS.

I woke up today with a feeling of dread. I thought my caseworker might have sanctioned my benefit by half (which usually happens when you miss one appointment). But it was worse than I thought. She went full-blown authoritarian asshole, and completely suspended it. I called her twice, and emailed – no answer. She finally responded, saying she suspended my benefit because I had a job and she didn’t want me to get into more debt if WINZ overpaid me. In 15 years of being on and off welfare, this has never been standard WINZ policy in my experience. I previously reported my wages weekly and my benefit gets adjusted against the index, and I’ve never had my benefit suspended before when I’ve landed a job. Considering my caseworkers know’s the job is casual and less than 30 hours a week, suspending my benefit makes no sense. She didn’t even send me an email to tell me she had decided the best course of action during this time would be to suspend my benefit. During a worldwide pandemic. That has killed thousands. And is causing our next financial crash.

The vast majority of low waged and precarious workers like me, haven’t recovered from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and we still feel the consequences to this day. I can’t even bear to think about the fresh hell this pandemic and following economic crisis is gonna be like for workers like me. We will be fired at will, or have our shifts cut by employers who don’t give any shits about our personal and economic well-being during the best of times. 

The reality is that WINZ and their caseworkers still expect people to come in for appointments (including the immuno-compromised). If people don’t attend they risk having sanctions applied that cut or completely suspend their benefits. Exactly like what has happened to me. It’s vital to point out that many people on welfare have serious and life threatening illnesses which include cancer, Crohn’s, asthma and other respiratory problems… I could go on. For these people during the coronavirus pandemic, WINZ appointments could literally be a game of Russian roulette but WINZ logic only offers them the choice of attending appointments or starving.

Our coalition government said they would take swift, decisive and compassionate action in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Our government has, in many ways, delivered on that promise because today they announced a rescue package in response to CoronaVirus. It’s the biggest stimulus package announced globally, so far. But some of the package is based on trickle-down economics in my humble opinion. The lion’s share of the $12.1 billion rescue package is going to business owners who will take a cut of $8.7 billion. I guess the magic thinking is that somehow the money will trickle down into pockets of workers like me. 

When in the fuck has that ever happened? Never. That’s when. 

We’ll have to wait and see if the package reduces the rates of job loss and cut shifts in precarious industries such as hospitality and helps get us back to normal when the time comes. Thing is my ‘normal’ is employers paying me fuck all while offering me no guarantee of hours or a job one week til the next. My ‘normal’ sucks. Money has also been set aside for people on welfare but that extra cash ($25 a week) means piss all to people like me who get their benefits suspended for absolutely no real reason. It also took a pandemic for the government to increase core benefits to the bare minimum. I know I sound cynical but I feel this way for a reason. I barely survived the last financial crash. I don’t know how I’ll survive another one. I’m exhausted.  

Our systems are set up to punish poor people, and they continue to do so even during a pandemic. We should always be showing each other aroha, compassion, and solidarity but ESPECIALLY in times like these. We need to be better than this.

 


Kia ora my Name is Chloe Ann-King and I am a noted writer and workers rights advocate who fights for the rights of hospitality workers and people on welfare. All the mahi I undertake is volunteer and mostly unpaid. If you’d like to support my mahi/learn more about who I am and what I do please check out my patreon and twitter or you can directly donate to me via Paypal: king.chloe@gmail.com or bank account: Miss C A KING 12-3040-0580277-01

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