A single mum in the Northland town of Dargaville says she had to provide medical records to Work and Income before she was issued with a food grant to stock up before the Alert Level 4 lockdown began.
Ebony Maxwell says she’s recently been in and out of hospital with a chest infection, and that her three-year-old daughter has a severe lung condition which she’s had since birth.
Ms Maxwell says she approached WINZ for a food grant when New Zealand was still in Alert Level 2 stage, as she was nervous about having to leave the house with her children to shop once a week during the lockdown period.
“My daughter…the first 15 months of her life she was in hospital, her immunity is really down so if she even catches a cold it’s really severe. So I approached (WINZ) about a food grant because we didn’t want to leave our home. I just wanted to be at home with my kids and not have to leave our house at all.”
She says initially WINZ told her she could have a $100 grant, but Ms Maxwell was hoping to do a big shop so she could avoid leaving the house.
The Alert Level 4 lockdown rules are that only one member of the household should go to the supermarket, but Ms Maxwell says that isn’t an option for her with five of her kids still living at home.
“They were saying there’s nothing stopping you from getting the bare essentials I said there is.
"I don’t have anyone to stay at home with my children, so I have to take my children out in public with me. That’s me putting my daughter at risk and also putting me at risk that we’re having to go out in public while we’re unwell.”
Ms Maxwell says her daughter is particularly at risk of being affected by Covid-19.
She has “lung issues, breathing difficulties, all sorts of stuff. Everytime she gets unwell straight away her lungs get attacked, she ends up in hospital, she ends up in quarantine, sick people can’t be around her. It’s pretty severe.”
Ms Maxwell says she was told her case wasn’t serious enough.
“When I rung we were at Alert Level 2, so that was the same day they announced the level 3 and then the level 4 - in 48 hours time. The case manager said to me, 'we’re only at level 2 lockdown, it’s not a huge emergency, it’s not a big deal'.”
Ms Maxwell says she when she didn’t receive a call back, she arranged to get medical certificates to prove her and her daughter’s health conditions.
Ms Maxwell said she spent hours being put on hold, was hung up on and was passed around four different WINZ managers in two different WINZ branches over a period of several days before she had any success.
“When I spoke to the manager from Whangarei, I said look I’ve got a health condition, my daughter has low immunity, she also has a lung condition. I’m trying to get a food grant they keep declining me. She said, 'well, do you have any proof?'
“So I said I had taken it upon myself to get a medical which cost me $65, hoping that would give WINZ some compassion. I emailed her the medical straight away. She rung me back that afternoon and she said, 'oh, yep we’ve approved a $400 food grant, for four weeks'.”
Ms Maxwell says she’s pleased to finally have the grant, but that she should never have had to supply medical records to get it.
“It was only because I took the initiative to go back to the hospital get a medical for myself that I had to pay for, and also get them to print out my daughters lung issues, so when I spoke to that last person it was literally the last straw.
"It was like if you don’t help me lady and you don’t see where I’m coming from there’s seriously something wrong.”
She says for other people in her community seeking help from WINZ is too hard and many give up.
“I’ve been feeding people out of my own pockets, I’m on the bones of my ass, these are our neighbours, people that live across the road. Why is a solo mother having to help out other beneficiaries when there’s help there for them?”
It comes as reports mount of long wait times as WINZ struggles to deal with calls after closing office doors to the public.
Ministry of Social Development Regional Commissioner Eru Lyndon says it’s not standard practice for clients to have to produce medical certificates for food grants.
“However, as we had no mention of her illness on file, we asked the client to provide a medical certificate to verify her situation.
"Given the client’s situation, we recognised that she required financial support and provided this within 48 hours, meaning that her family were safe and healthy during this time.”
The MSD says Ms Maxwell was put on hold for 15 minutes during a call with the Dargaville office, but wouldn’t comment on other calls made by Ms Maxwell or wait times to get through to the call centre.
Ms Maxwell says people shouldn’t have to beg for help during a crisis, especially if they’re trying to avoid going out and catching or spreading the virus.
“There’s a lot more people far worse than me, I’m at the borderline.
"I know people they don’t even have phones, they don’t have cars they don’t have the means to get help.
"I’m doing pretty well 'cos I have a phone and I can call people but there are people out there who are way worse off than I am, way worse off.”