Carers who look after family or other community members are unsure what National’s plan to get more people into paid work might mean for them.

Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders provide unpaid care to family, friends, family, whānau and aiga members with a disability, health condition or illness who need help with everyday living.

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Approximately one in every seven adult New Zealanders identify as being an unpaid carer – 432,000 people based on the 2018 Census.

Those who care full-time for someone and is not their spouse can be eligible for a Supported Living Payment. However, those who don’t meet that threshold often look to the Jobseeker benefit, particularly if the caring work is sudden and unexpected.

Tracey Dorward resigned from her last job after her mother had an accident and her employer wouldn’t let her go to the hospital.

“I said my mum needs me more, and left. I thought I’d lose my job, but it didn’t matter because I was worried about Mum. I returned to work the next day to pick up the pieces.

“When I tried to talk about my role as a carer and the need for flexibility, I was told this might not be the job for me.”

Tracey went on a benefit while she supported her mother.

She has now found work that allows her the flexibility to care for her family member. 

Carers NZ chief executive Laurie Hilsgen said there were many who relied on Jobseeker and could not find employment that suited. 

“Carers can be on Jobseeker if maybe they can’t get sign-off to be eligible for a Supported Living Payment … Carers on Jobseeker may have stopped working due to inflexibility of an existing job and needing to find something else.

“Or perhaps someone’s support needs have escalated – there are many reasons.”

Under National’s plans to get people off Jobseeker it would require recipients to reapply for their benefit every six months and provide documented evidence of job applications and interview attendance.

Many carers are highly qualified and want to work, it is not a matter of struggling to find a job, it is a matter of finding a job that allows them the flexibility required.

Many carers would also say that working is a form of respite. 

Hilsgen said there had been mixed reaction from carers so far.

“Many are saying of course it will be recognised that we’re already doing a role and we do not expect to be impacted by work testing. Others are saying, well over the years different governments have interpreted this and some family carers have got caught on work testing and so we’d really like to know what what’s going to happen to us.”

She said National’s specific plan for young people on Jobseeker ignored the fact more young people were being tasked with caring for their ageing relatives.

Under the plans for those aged 18 to 24, a job coach would be assigned to set a plan for the young person. Those who fail to follow their plan will face sanctions, such as money management or benefit reductions.

“We’ve got research that during Covid a lot stepped up to more responsibility, a lot were missing school, their early working lives can be impacted by young caring and they’re performing a valuable role. So again, we would like some clarity that if you are a young carer on a benefit, are you going to be caught into fairly hardcore expectations?”

She said Jobseeker was not the best option for people caring, but there was little other way for carers to support themselves, particularly if the person they were looking after did not meet the high threshold of care required for a Supported Living Payment. 

If the person being cared for received Individualised Funding this may also be used to pay for a carer.

“We hope the new government will find ways to help family carers who do want to do outside paid work, which is the majority, and will support programmes that can help them do that. They need flexible work with flexible employers.”

Based on surveys recently undertaken by Carers NZ, Hilsgen said personal wellbeing of carers was at the lowest level ever seen.

“They’re tired, they’re burned out. And so they don’t need uncertainty about this on top of that.”

She said National and Act had given hopeful signals in opposition that the work of family carers would be valued.

“Maybe National by having that spokesperson role is a positive sign for us that there is recognition there that has not happened with any other political party.

“And with Act, David Seymour, he took some leadership roles and opposition around career issues like the closure of the Laura Ferguson trust in Auckland. But it’s easy to do those things when you’re in opposition. What we’re looking for is what is it all going to mean now that they’re in government.”

Carers NZ recently began a petition calling for a Minister or Commissioner for Carers. It was something the Labour government said it would not entertain at the time.

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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