For many people with disabilities, Minnesota’s care crisis has reached catastrophic levels. Staff shortages have been compounded by the COVID-19 omicron variant. Illness has swept many workplaces, forcing employees to stay home and others to pick up the slack. Group home, transitional care and nursing home residents find themselves getting less needed attention.
A variety of solutions are proposed for the 2022 Minnesota Legislature to consider, including retention bonuses, grant programs to help direct support professionals cover child care costs, scholarships for health care training programs and other ways to keep people working in the health care field. One suggestion that has been made is that the entire care system itself needs to be revamped.
Legislative committee meetings and advocacy group updates are dominated by discussions of the issue. “The workforce needs, in the disability community, group homes and for people with special needs is grievous and the system is about to collapse,” said Sen. Jim Abeler (R – Anoka). He chairs the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee.
Scenarios driven by staffing problems can play out in many ways. People who have enjoyed their own homes with supportive services must move into group homes or in with family because they cannot hire enough staff. People in group homes are asked to move in with family if they are able or to move to different group homes because of staff shortages.
In some cases moving in with family members creates the ripple effect of family members having to quit their jobs or make other changes to be caregivers. Or elderly family members find themselves struggling to provide care.
One solution for people with disabilities who run into staff shortages has sometimes been to stay for a time at nursing homes or transitional care centers. But the widespread nature of the crisis in health care and home care staffing often means that isn’t always an option.
ARRM CEO Sue Schettle said the workforce crisis challenges are the worst she has seen in her four years of leadership. “Never have the challenges been so immense and the fear felt throughout our membership been so real.”
The direct support professional vacancy rate alone is hovering at 30 percent, according to a late 2021 survey conducted by ARRM “These staffing shortages are having a real-life impact on the individuals that access services.
In another survey from late last year, ARRM found that nearly 50 percent of respondents had reduced capacity in community residential settings, with homes either temporarily or permanently closed. The number is more than four times higher than reported in previous years.
One place struggling is Chanhassen-based Mount Olivet Rolling Acres. “We’re exhausted, we’re scared, we’re at the end of our ropes,” said Tracy Murphy, president of Mount Olivet Rolling Acres, as she described the challenges the disability services provider is facing. Mount Olivet has about 3,000 clients for a variety of services. It operates 32 group homes.
In her five years at Mount Olivet, the nonprofit has never been fully staffed. Staffing levels should be around 500. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, Murphy would have described staffing levels as being at a crisis stage.
“We’re no longer in crisis,” she told Abeler’s committee in mid-January. “Now it is an emergency.”
Mount Olivet is operating at its absolute minimum staffing, stretched by vacancies and staff members who have had to stay home due to COVID-19. Three homes closed temporarily in mid-January with two more to follow.
Staff members who work in areas ranging from administration to maintenance are pulling work shifts to help the group home residents. Some people are working well over 70 hours a week Moving residents around, sending some home and having such changes in day-to-day staff affects the quality of life for all residents.
Murphy cited the mental health challenges changing staffing creates for residents. “Imagine you see someone different every day,” she said.
Mount Olivet was recently cited for unintentional maltreatment after a resident sustained a thumb injury. Murphy and other professionals worry that such incidents could happen again at thinly staffed facilities.
Facilities have also struggled with employees who refuse to or cannot be vaccinated. If vaccines mandates go into place in the spring, places would lose workers who oppose vaccines. Mount Olivet could lose another 80 workers.