A new study says Work and Income is pushing many beneficiaries into jobs that don't last - and even told a pregnant woman to start work as a beekeeper two weeks before she was due to give birth.
The master's thesis study by Victoria University student Alicia Sudden surveyed 234 people who came off welfare benefits since July 2013 and found that only 143 (61 per cent) had any kind of paid work two years later.
A fifth (49) had gone back on welfare, one in seven (34) were out of work but studying, and eight were not in paid work, on welfare or studying, mainly supported by partners.
Sudden, who was inspired to write the thesis after her mum Diane brought her up on a sole parent benefit, interviewed six people in depth and found that pushing beneficiaries into precarious, low-paid work "can worsen individual and family wellbeing".
"Stephanie [not her real name], for example, was suggested by Winz [Work and Income] for a beekeeping position when she was eight and a half months pregnant," she found.
Later Stephanie found a job with a Work and Income wage subsidy but the job ended before the end of her initial 90-day trial so she is now back on the sole parent benefit.
"All the people I talked to personally really wanted to be in work, and it seemed like the current system is making it harder, rather than easier, in terms of supporting them into work or training or into work where there is no compatibility with the current labour market," Sudden said.
Only 87 of those in paid work had fulltime jobs. Another 30 were working part-time, although half of them actually wanted fulltime work.
Nine were in casual work, five juggled multiple jobs, five were working and studying, four self-employed and three had temporary jobs.
A sole parent told Sudden that she picked up "the odd little contract here and there" and found it impossible to estimate how much she would earn each week as Work and Income required.
She and two of the others Sudden interviewed ended up in debt to Work and Income because they earned more than they estimated, so had to repay part of their benefits.
Another sole parent applied for a training incentive allowance to increase her skills so she could get a permanent job, but was told she was "over-qualified" because she already had a certificate from another one-year course. She had to lodge an appeal to get this rejection overturned.
Sudden describes "degradation ceremonies" that beneficiaries have to go through to seek help from Work and Income, and says the agency's "punitive" approach actually undermines beneficiaries' confidence to seek work.
She said the agency should be more flexible and supportive and bring back a system of personalised case managers that was axed in 2010.
Social Development Ministry deputy chief executive Ruth Bound said the thesis "does not fairly reflect the work our people do each day to help improve the lives of New Zealanders we support".
"All of the six people interviewed by Ms Sudden expressed clear goals for themselves and their loved ones, and are working hard to realise them, despite personal barriers... That is what ministry staff come to work every day to do, help people make a better life for themselves.
How the system works
• Jobseeker Support (116 of Sudden's sample): must show that they are looking for work of at least 30 hours a week unless a doctor certifies that they can't work.
• Sole Parent Support (102): must prepare for work until their youngest child turns 3 and then show that they are looking for work of at least 20 hours a week.
• Supported Living Payment (16): no work obligations, but must prepare for work if they are assessed as having the capacity to prepare for work.
• Note: People may continue receiving a partial benefit while working if their incomes are low enough.