Multiple solutions are needed for disability services waiting lists
by Julie Johnson
We are fortunate to live in a state with a well-established system of employment and day support providers that bring rich work opportunities and life experiences to thousands of Minnesotans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
These services require caring and well-trained direct support staff who know how to best support each person. These staff offer training, advice, encouragement, hands-on personal support to help people live the best life possible.
Our industry was already experiencing a crisis-level staffing shortage before COVID, and now finds itself in a situation that is more dire than before. People who rely on our programs experienced significant disruption to their lives and increased loneliness and isolation when we temporarily closed during the initial stages of the pandemic.
While most programs have reopened, there are simply not enough staff to bring everyone back. The effects of this are growing waiting lists of Minnesotans with disabilities wishing to access our services for the first time, or to return post-pandemic.
The staff shortage has ripple effects. It adds stress to the family members and residential service staff responsible for day supports. And, most importantly, it means that these adults with disabilities are not able to fulfill their needs and preferences for employment and daytime activities.
An informal survey by the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR) further exemplified this need. Almost a third of respondents said they know of at least 100 people on their service waiting list. Being on a waiting list means staying at home, with limited social engagement, delayed training, and stagnant skill-building. One west metro provider said that at the current rate, a new client would have to wait for years to get into their program.
Not having access to employment and day supports has a real effect on the quality of life and wellbeing of the people seeking our services.
We recognize that the workforce shortage is not unique to us and other industries are feeling the immense stress of the current labor market. However, unlike many other areas of employment, the shortage of workers for disability service providers creates real health and safety concerns for individuals who rely on staff to support them in their day-to-day activities.
Next year, employment and day service providers will have some new funds coming in gradually to increase wages, which will help. But current Minnesota law requires these rate adjustments to be based on nearly 3-year-old market data. Can you imagine comparing Minnesota’s workforce today to the way things were in 2018?
The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities recently celebrated 50 years of advocacy in improving the lives of individuals with disabilities. Due to their work, and the work of countless advocates, our state has made monumental progress – particularly in moving from an institutional model to a robust system of community-based organizations.
While it is important to acknowledge that progress we have made, we must ensure that we do not move backwards and reduce service options for people who want and need them.
We need additional tools to incentivize people to work in the disability field. We need additional support from our government to continue to raise wages to recognize the value of people who work in the field. Service providers, along with the people in our programs and their family members, must keep educating and building relationships with our legislators so that they understand the bills needed to keep our services strong and enduring.
We also need to find ways to show that this is a job in which one can truly make a positive impact in our communities. It is not an easy job, but it brings great fulfillment and pride to know that every day you are making the world a better place by choosing to support individuals with disabilities. We are going through a period of momentous change, and many people are reconsidering their career choices. I hope that more people will consider entering the field and experience how it can change their lives and the lives of the people they work with.
I am an optimist by nature. Perhaps that’s because service providers are some of the most resilient people I know. By working together and staying focused on rebuilding and strengthening our workforce, we can return to a place where services are available to all who want and need them. Until then, the work continues.
Thanks to all who play a part, and we look forward to brighter days ahead.
Julie Johnson is president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR).