Disability Organizations Seek Relief to Keep the Lights On

By: Sheila Regan, Freelance Community Journalist

Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on nearly every aspect of life in Minnesota, and support systems for people with disabilities are no exception. Minnesota’s social distancing advisories and stay-at-home order has included day centers and employment programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Because these programs are only paid when their services are provided, they have little or no income going toward rent and other fixed costs to support their infrastructure. 

“We are in a pretty much complete shutdown,” said Mike Burke, the director of operations for Productive Alternatives, in Fergus Falls, which has five different locations in Minnesota. Productive Alternatives offers both day programs as well as employment opportunities for people with disabilities. 

According to Burke, most of the nonprofit organization’s staff have been laid off. 

“Our agency made a decision to try to adhere to the governor’s stay at home order,” he said. “Most of our clients in residential situations are sheltering in place in their homes. The connection to the outside is becoming an issue for them. It’s a real challenge for them to maintain daily activities and survival skills.” 

Burke is a member of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation, composed of more than 100 disability service and employment providers across the state of Minnesota, serving 26,000 people. MOHR has put together a bill, called “Disability Day and Employment Services Fixed Cost Relief,” which they are advocating around to Minnesota’s lawmakers. They say it would provide funding for fixed costs for the nonprofit organizations that run day programs and other  services people with disabilities use. 

“It’s really to look at bare minimum costs,” Burke said. “The bill is to help us survive, and keep us alive long enough so that we can get back to serving people. It’s a stop gap.” 

Julie Johnson, president of MOHR, said many of the organizations that offer day services and employment programs are too big to qualify for small business loans, and don’t fall into a lot of emergency funding categories. 

“We’ve reached out to the legislature and said, ‘We understand you can’t pay us, but we need to cover our fixed costs,’” Johnson said. “For many of the people that we support, we are their lifeline to the community. We need to have enough support to make it through the pandemic.” 

Senator Jim Abeler (SD35-GOP), Chair of the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy committee, said he plans to bring forth MOHR’s bill on April 15. 

“Minnesota is a state actually trying to make life as good as it can be for people with disabilities,” he said. “During the day, people that are unable to handle a more traditional job, these services are places where they can go, and meet some people, and work on something, and maybe get a small check, and get a little out of the house experience. It’s worked out pretty well.” 

These services, he notes, are also the law. “It’s a good idea. It’s a law. And it’s a good law, it’s a good approach to kind of help these individuals.” 

Since the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. has moved toward community support, as opposed to state hospitals, for people with disabilities, through laws like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. During President Obama’s tenure, Congress passed The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, whose goal is “to maximize the independence, well-being, and health of older adults and people with disabilities, and the families and caregivers of both.” 

According to the government website for the Administration for Community Living, Independent Living is defined as “a philosophy of consumer control, peer support, self-help, self-determination, equal access, and individual and system advocacy, in order to maximize the leadership, empowerment, independence, and productivity of individuals with disabilities, and the integration and full inclusion of individuals with disabilities into the mainstream of American society.”

“When this is over, whenever, whatever normal is going to be returns, we’re going to need those facilities for these individuals to have these experiences that are really productive and good for them,” Abeler said. “And, frankly, it’s a national standard that we have to not leave them in institutions all the time, that they get to go out and not be locked up somewhere.” 

“They’re greatly at risk for not opening again,” Abeler said of the 300 service organizations. “I’m supporting the proposal that MOHR has, to pay them half of their money to retain the industry for when the dust settles.” Half, he said, because these organizations are losing about half of their income, since staffing costs have drastically been reduced, but fixed costs have not. 

It’s a controversial move, Abeler said. “You’re really paying people to do nothing,” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to repurpose, but there’s not really a way that we repurpose a building and repurpose their insurance and all of that.” 

If it doesn’t pass,  Abeler said, the worst case scenario is that there won’t be places for individuals to go when the pandemic is over. In addition, if those organizations collapse, it would mean huge job losses. “It’s also going to replace a lot of jobs out there. The bigger ones are significant employers.” 

According to Abeler, the Governor’s Executive Order 20-12, gave authority to the Department of Human Services Commissioner to redirect staffing costs away from day centers toward extra staffing where people with disabilities live.

DHS Assistant Commissioner Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa said that DHS is currently reviewing ways the department can support counties, tribes, health plans, and community partners. 

“We are working together to keep the more than 1 million vulnerable people on our programs safe, including people with disabilities,” Matemba-Mutasa said in a statement. “The department is listening to what our partners are telling us they need and considering all options for flexibilities the commissioner can authorize under the governor’s emergency executive order.”

Jim Clammer, whose 33 year old son, Bob, works at Kowalski’s through Merrick Inc. said that 20-12 hasn’t provided enough authority to the commissioner to provide funding for groups like Merrick. 

“It’s very frustrating,” said Clapper. “I don’t think that many of these service providers and employment and life enrichment services will be available in another month or so.” 

Clapper’s son began the program with Merrick in 2008, and over time he’s gone from having a job in a Merrick facility to working out in the community at Kowalski’s.

 “He’s doing really well,” Clapper said. “Most of these places are working on a very tight budget. They can’t go for two months without any revenue.” 

Even if the organizations do survive, Clapper is concerned about maintaining staffing, as some laid off workers might get other jobs in the meantime.  

“We already have an 18 percent vacancy rate,” he said. “Even if they can open up somehow, they might not be able to get enough Disability Service Professionals.” 

As for Bob, Clapper said he’s currently living in a group home. His house mates also work at Kowalski’s, and while one, like Bob, has been laid off, another continues to work, as he’s employed directly by Kowalski’s. 

“He is going stir crazy,” Clapper said. “He would love to get back to work.” 

Meanwhile, Abeler notes that the legislation won’t be easy. “It faces an uphill battle,” Abeler said. “As far as I know, I’m one of the leading proponents of it. Senator [John] Hoffman [SD36- DFL] and I. And we represent only one quarter of the voices.”

He plans to promote the bill on Wednesday at 2pm. “My effort on Wednesday is to promote this and try to find a way to keep these places open,” he said. 

You can read a call to action by MOHR here

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