By RNZ

People with empty cupboards and the newly unemployed are desperately seeking financial support from the government but many are struggling to get through.

Work and Income is fielding an unprecedented number of calls for people trying to access the jobseeker allowance, emergency food grants and wage subsidies - with 75,000 calls in just four days.

Mary and her partner are both in their 50s and on the benefit.

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Between them, they get roughly $186 a week, plus some temporary additional support to pay off a car.

As the lockdown drew near, their cupboards were almost empty, Mary said.

She applied for an emergency food grant a week ago and heard nothing, so she approached advocacy group Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) for help.

Her advocate applied for them and also heard nothing back.

"She lent me $50 to get bread and butter. We were very grateful for that because we had absolutely nothing in our cupboards or fridge."

Her emergency grant arrived on Monday - $150 for food and $50 for petrol.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has released a video message from self-isolation after displaying 'mild symptoms' of coronavirus. Video / Boris Johnson

But she didn't find that out until she called Work and Income about a separate matter.

The whole process has left her feeling demoralised.

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"It made me feel like I'm worth nothing, very belittled by the government in the way that, when I do ask for assistance, it's to help us and they don't nudge any more than they have to. It's really hard sometimes and they just don't get it," she said.

The stress over money caused tension between her and her partner, Mary said, and she worries for other families in the same position.

Another Auckland family found themselves in a catch-22, when trying to get support.

James' two adult children have lost their jobs because of the lockdown.

They are first-time applicants for a benefit and don't have existing client numbers.

They struggled to get through to Work and Income, so James tried on their behalf.

"First of all, I went on the website, which is quite confusing and found that if you want to apply you need a number," he said.

"So I tried ringing the 0800 number myself, and basically I was told that it was an 87-minute wait and then a message said, 'sorry, we're really busy, use the website' and it cut me off."

He said he did this about six times to no avail, so he went back to the website.

"You can only go so far on the website - you need a client number. If you've never had a benefit before, to get a client number you have to ring them, so catch-22."

He understands Work and Income is overwhelmed, but said it should introduce a call-back service.

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The system should be more efficient considering there might be thousands of new applicants who were in this position, he said.

Auckland Action Against Poverty spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said Work and Income's system was "chaos".

"We're incredibly concerned about the fact that Work and Income's emails and online systems are completely overloaded," he said.

"People are going for days without accessing emergency assistance for things like food grants or even get into income support for those that are recently unemployed."

He said there were some options the government could look at to help smoothen the process.

"The simplest way to streamline this is to increase base-line benefit levels, so that we take off a lot of the demand for families to get in touch with Work and Income for food grants.

"That would alleviate a lot of that hardship out there in the community and a lot of the time staff have to take to process these hardship grants."

Benefits are set to increase by $25 from today but AAAP wants that to be raised higher.

Covid-19 and the associated social-distancing has created a worldwide trend of 'balcony concerts' which started in Italy in mid-March.

The winter energy payment, which those on benefits receive, is also doubling.

The Ministry of Social Development said it was doing everything it could to keep up with the volume of requests and was asking for patience.

It said it was aware of the catch-22 situation for people without a client number and was trying to fix it.

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A number of changes have also been made to help ease some of the demand on services, including:

Clearing any 52-week reapplications for people on jobseeker or sole parent support
Extending the period that temporary additional support is granted for
Deferring the need to provide subsequent medical certificates for people already getting jobseeker support, sole parent support, supported living payment and child disability allowance
Deferring any disability allowance reviews
Delaying annual reviews (including all annual reviews of income, confirming your circumstances and annual circumstances letters, social housing reviews, and life certificates)
Clearing any special benefit expiries or reviews
Deferring any new obligations failures

People are being encouraged to check the Work and Income website for information before they call.