Today was my last day at work at the Red Cross; my contract expires tomorrow. Originally it was for six months, but I’ve been there for nine, starting on verifications and dabbling in data entry, payments, filing and call centre. It was my first office job and kind of my first real grown up job – it was also both the best and worst job I’ve ever had.
Verifications basically involved sitting in a room with a desk and a few chairs and boxes and boxes and boxes of grant applications. We would take a pile of them and check each one to make sure the forms were filled out, the address looked reasonable (this was very easy to pass, but there were a few that got raised eyebrows) and it had the right supporting information. If it did we’d mark how much money they qualified for and put it in a pile for data entry. If it didn’t we’d write what the problem was and put it in a pile for exceptions. Later on, this step was merged with data entry, but that wasn’t until the room full of applications was reduced hugely. This job, as well as call centre, were the two where I was most dealing with the things that people were going through. Here it was a lot more indirect – a lot of people would write letters or just little notes, either of thanks or explaining their situations, or both. I saw one that just had a note memorialising someone who’d died in the quake. It was emotional and could be difficult, with moments of frustration and quite a bit of humour. Early on we worked three hour shifts and there could be up to four of them a day – I frequently worked three shifts in a row.
Call centre was that multiplied exponentially. By then the shifts had normalised (four hour shifts, two a day, so we were essentially working office hours) and I was mostly just doing mornings, but the sheer volume of calls we were getting meant that even a four hour shift was pretty exhausting. Well, not just the volume. For a long time it was a good day if no one cried over the phone. I had a system where I got to buy Subway if I had to deal with death. Once when I was doing outbound calls (following up on applications with problems) it was suggested I take a break after my side of a conversation: “Hi, this is Chris from the Red Cross, can I speak to [name]? …Oh, I’m just calling about the Winter Assistance grant she applied for, when’s a good time to get hold of her? …Oh, I’m so sorry. Shall I just cancel it then? …Okay. Take care. …You too. *hang up* What’s the code for ‘applicant deceased’? She died yesterday.” There were angry people, desperate people, grateful people, people who were so happy just to find out they were speaking to someone from Christchurch, people who seemed to call mostly because they wanted to talk to someone without feeling like they were burdening their family, people who would come out in the middle of a conversation casually announcing that they were in the city centre, or that they’d been standing metres away from the bus that was crushed, or any number of other horrifying scenarios. People I talked to every day, sometimes more than once, people who made me want to actually go to their houses and drop off food parcels, people who were astoundingly nonchalant about the damage to their houses – “Can I ask what sort of damage you have?” “Oh, it’s not too bad. They’ve propped up the back wall now so it won’t fall down.”
In call centre I heard a lot about what EQC, CERA, WINZ and other agencies wouldn’t do for people. I heard a lot about what people would do for friends and neighbours, too – it’s very common for people to call on behalf, either to get the forms or to clarify things or to provide a go between so they could explain something in a way they knew the person would understand. Sometimes people call up wanting to know how to donate items (as far as I know we only take money, if anyone’s wondering, but you can call the main office to talk to them about it). I talked to one guy who’d run out of money after making sure all his elderly neighbours had food when power cuts ruined their supplies. A few days ago someone else mentioned he’d had fourteen people in his house (which was now a write-off) and hey, the BBQ had worked.
Some people thought we gave away too much money to the wrong people. Others thought we were too strict. I’d get furious at letters to the editor saying that losing utilities for at least a week didn’t constitute hardship, with no thought about what conditions would be like after that long without power for fridges or freezers, or sewerage, or running water to at least stay clean and hygienic, and above all the fact that these people were not prepared for it. Especially when you’re poor, you don’t have the money to put away extra supplies. You often don’t have the room.
The Red Cross turned me into an activist and made me radically re-evaluate what I want to do with my life. It’s because of this job that I’m going back to school next year and that I want to minor in Social Policy. Ironically, being able to do this work has made my emotional health better this year – I am struggling with the earthquake, but in other regards my mental health is enormously improved and I have a lot more confidence in myself and my abilities.
It’s incredibly strange to think that I won’t be going back there. But ultimately, it means that an important part of the recovery is over and it’s time to move on. There are still a lot of people suffering, and for many of them it actually peaked months after the earthquake, rather than days, but overall the needs are less immediate now, and if we manage to avoid another large seismic event we can only improve from here. I’m not sure how long the trauma will last – for some, it may only die with them – but I’d like to see us learn from this year. Unfortunately I think that may only happen on an individual scale, but I hope I’m wrong.