Many people with disabilities lack job opportunities and have had their housing upended because of Minnesota’s dire worker shortage. As the first bill deadline of the 2022 Minnesota Legislature passed March 25, Minnesotans with disabilities, their service providers and allies were hoping that their needs will be addressed and not left behind as the session continued.
More than 1,000 people from around the state and of local disability service organizations recently took part in rallying for legislative support during this year’s Disability Services Day March 8. the rally, led by the advocacy groups ARRM and MOHR, was again held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Interest was so strong, the virtual meeting hit capacity, moving some participants to watch on Facebook.
People from around the state waved signs and cheered speakers as they watched the rally. It’s estimated that more than 3,500 people around the state are on waiting lists for services.
Much focus was on legislation championed by the Best Life Alliance to raise wages and benefit for care providers, said Sara Grafstrom, director of state and federal policy for ARRM. The need is for compensation to be addressed long-term, making changes to waiver and rate reimbursement systems.
“Without change we’ll be back here talking about this year after year,” Grafstrom said.
ARRM and MOHR are calling for immediate wage relief, to help one-time with worker retention bonuses, assistance with workers’ child care costs and assistance with scholarships and training costs.
Disability service organizations that had to close or limit services when the pandemic began are now unable to hire replacement staff or bring back existing workers. Employment, day service and housing programs have long waiting lists of people wanting to work, go to activities or have a place to live. But their isn’t enough staff to provide needed supports. What has been described as a workforce crisis is now referred to as “catastrophe.”
ARRM leader Sue Schettle and MOHR leader Julie Johnson emphasized the need for everyone to share their stories with state lawmakers. Lawmakers in turn said the recent gains made would not have happened without the disability community rallying in recent years. But the fight is far from over.
One of many needs is to focus on the disability waiver system, said Rep. Jessica Hanson (DFL-Burnsville). She urged advocates to keep telling state lawmakers and the public of their struggles. “I do this work as a means to amplify your voice … We know it’s rough out there.”
SF 2771 and HF 3100 would provide long-term solutions, including adjustments to Minnesota’s Disability Waiver Rate System (DWRS. Changes would allow for use of up-to-date economic data when the state sets reimbursement rates. Used by disability service providers to pay staff and provide services, the current rate system has been criticized for falling behind.
SF 2968 and HF 3268 are the short-term solutions, outlining ways address staffing shortages of direct support professionals. The one-time retention payments for staff have support, as do the ideas for child care cost relief and education incentives.
Lawmakers cautioned advocates that they may again find themselves waiting until session’s end for their issues to be addressed. But with a state surplus of $9.25 billon, several said the time to address the workforce issues is now.
“The state is flush but individual Minnesotans are not,’ said Sen John Hoffman (DFL – Champlain). He urged advocates to continue to argue that some of the surplus should be used to cover staffing needs.
Access Press legislative coverage is by Editor Jane McClure.