Working in the earthquake zone

PSA members are pitching in to provide the best possible services to the people of Canterbury while organisers are working hard to ensure the willing spirit is not taken advantage of and hard-won rights are not lost. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, many worked long, unpaid hours in terrible conditions. Four months down the track, this should no longer be the case – but even so, working life is very different to what it used to be, as these stories show.

john staceHumbling to see


Many PSA members are in a life-changing situation in their own lives but they put that aside and go to work to figure out how they can do the best job for the community. It is humbling to see.

Most are working in a different way or in a different environment than before but they know that public services are needed more than ever and that’s where their focus is.

If we could capture that and put it up on a giant screen, all those myths and nonsense about public services would disappear in a matter of seconds.

Many of our members no longer have their own place of work. They are sharing a desk with other colleagues; some are working from home; some out of their cars. Others are soldiering on in workplaces with no running water. They’ve found ways to work through that and keep going.

The dislocation is going to go on for some time. And even when it gets back to something more like normality, things are not going to be what they were. We need to advocate for a new normal that is acceptable for our members as workers, and as best as it can be for them as citizens. Our goal must be to make things better than before.

But now it’s all hands to the pump. I have seen many examples of members picking up work that needs to be done, whether or not it’s something they would normally do. Basically, it’s let’s see what needs to be done and figure out a way to get it done.

All of this whilst they may have had their house written off. Some are living with extended family or camping out with friends. And a lot have been touched by the most terrible part of the earthquake: the loss of life.

Yet they are still doing what they do because they are public servants, not people who just go along to do a day’s work for a day’s pay. It’s a privilege working alongside members and delegates such as these.

John Stace is a PSA organiser in Christchurch


Steve sharmanAll in the same boat


Department of Conservation employees now feel safe in their temporary premises at the International Antarctic Centre at Christchurch Airport. With American employees based in the building, security is high and doors are bullet-proof.

“We have to go through three security guards to get to the office” says PSA delegate Steve Sharman. “It is very nice that someone opens the door for you every time you enter.”

DOC’s office in Torrens House, built by the Ministry of Works to high specifications, sustained only minor damage but remains in the cordoned-off area. The regional office has been red-stickered.

Steve as the warden was last to leave the building after the earthquake struck. “We didn’t realise how bad it was until we came out of the building and saw Joe’s Garage opposite had collapsed.

“Latimer Square was full of people. I just remember the stunned looks on everyone’s faces. Someone said there was a building lying in the road. We later found out it was part of the CTV building where people had been killed.”

All office equipment was stuck in the central city building. Management had a 30-minute sortie to retrieve essential computers though all files remain in the building. “Everyone is in the same boat – a lot of the agencies we deal with have lost files too so we are all trying to reconstruct things from our online files,” says Steve.

About 40 staff moved to the Antarctic Centre and Steve says they are happy with their situation and have been well received. The centre even laid on a barbeque.

“Coming to work has been helpful for everyone. They were glad to be back into a routine.”

Steve now works six hours a day in the office, collects his children from school and continues his work at home in the evenings. Office hours are restricted to 8-5 because of security so “glide-time has gone.”

Most staff, including Steve, hope to be back in town by the end of the year, but there are no guarantees.


justice story brendan parisFacing a cold winter


Ministry of Justice staff may be in for a cold, muddy winter but their team leader has issued them all with fingerless gloves to compensate.

Staff relocated from the Christchurch District Court in the central city to a portacabin at Ngā Hau e Whā Marae in the eastern suburb of Aranui.

The building is very narrow, measuring only approximately 2m by 9m. During busy periods it houses up to 15 people at a time along with their desks, chairs, computers and files.

“In some ways the processing is a lot quicker. Before I had to physically get up and walk over to their office, now they sit right next to me,” says Brendan Paris.

Members of the public are seen in an area of plywood flooring under an awning outside – with a commercial blow heater to keep them from freezing.

There are no landline phones and remote wireless internet connection is intermittent.

The marae’s meeting house is used for the original Court One criminal lists as well as the extensive backlog of cases.  A portacabin at the back of the meeting house acts as a makeshift cell if the need arises.

One major positive to come from the move is the improved behaviour and lack of security issues says Bevan.

“Having court in the marae – most people are more respectful. At the old site there were around six incidents a day with people being drunk, bringing stuff into court they shouldn’t and aggression. Here there has not been one incident that I know of.”

Bevan doesn’t know what the future holds. “There are issues regarding whether staff will return to their old roles and teams. It is quite unsettling.

“I used to be in the jury team but they are not on at the moment so my role has completely changed. There has been no timeframe given as the jury trials will be the last thing to get back on track.”

At lunchtime, staff squashes into the makeshift staff room – a campervan parked next door to the portaloos. They joke about taking their lunch room for a spin to get fish and chips.


helen goodallFeeling good helping the community


Helen Goodall’s role as an investigator for Integrity Services at the Ministry of Social Development changed dramatically after the earthquake.

For two months she worked in the Parklands Earthquake Recovery Centre in the east of the city. “It was completely out of my normal comfort zone,” she says. “We worked with people whose lives had been completely shattered.”

The recovery centre acted as a ‘one-stop shop’ for a range of public services including Work and Income, Housing NZ, Inland Revenue, the city council, community law and other agencies.

“The collaboration between departments was amazing. My work had a completely different focus. It felt good helping the community I live in.”

The investigation unit has now relocated to the old Firestone building on Langdons Road and share the site with other MSD service lines. Work space is significantly reduced and much noisier in the large open-plan area.

With not enough desks, staff have to “hot seat” and grab what comes available. “Everyone is on top of each other but it’s best use of the space,” says Helen.

The toilet is in another part of the building and means a trip outside to get there. “There is no hot running water so you come back with freezing hands.”

She was on the fourth floor of the building in Sydenham when the earthquake struck. “Everyone was thrown to the floor. Ceiling panels were falling on us.  We saw old brick buildings on the other side of the road crumbling and falling. I never want to go back in that building again.”

With no power or water for 10 days, she remained off work to care for her adult son until he could return to his sheltered work arrangements.  “The ministry provided support to staff as they wanted or needed it,” she says.

Last week Helen got together with some colleagues from the Sydenham office. “We hadn’t seen each other for three months but before that we worked in the same room every day for 10 years.”


This article is from the June 2011 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.