Shuttered day programs, closed employment services and canceled activities present overwhelming obstacles for many Minnesota organizations serving people with disabilities. Keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant locking the doors.
It’s estimated that about 30,000 people use day services in Minnesota. Some programs were already facing difficulties as clients struggled to find care staff.
Because organizations are paid only when services are provided, there is no income to cover fixed costs such as rent, utilities, transportation, staff health insurance and other expenses. While some employment programs’ work is considered to be essential services and they can remain operating, others sit idle.
The shutdowns are compounded in small towns where people with disabilities lack other outlets for work or social activities. Providers and staff throughout the state worry that people with disabilities will lose progress or face mental health issues as they miss opportunities to work, create art, go to events and just socialize.
Many providers hope to reopen in May, if state leaders give the go-ahead. But that still leaves costs to cover from the weeks of closure. Some providers in Greater Minnesota are unsure if they’ll be able to reopen at all. There has been a push to have the Minnesota Legislature provide emergency funding for day supporters and services, so those needs can be met after the pandemic passes. Funding is also seen as a way to develop new ways to serve clients.
In April the Disability Day and Employment Services Fixed Cost Relief Bill was introduced. It would authorize retainer payments to service providers, including day programs and employment services for individuals with disabilities as well as adult day services for the elderly. The payments would be equal to 50 percent of the past revenue for services.
“We’ve reached out to the legislature and said, ‘We understand you can’t pay us, but we need to cover our fixed costs,’” said Julie Johnson, president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR). MOHR members provide services to more than 26,000 Minnesotans with disabilities.
“We simply cannot come back from this crisis with a decimated infrastructure for these crucial community disability services, where people with disabilities will not have access to innovative, individualized supports during the day,” Johnson said.
The state help may be all some providers can get, as many organizations are too large to quality for small business loans. Other emergency funding assistance may also shut the programs out.
Impacts around Minnesota vary provider to provider. Thousands have been laid off or locked out. Julie Zbaracki, CEO of PRI in St. Louis Park, said the shutdown had an immediate and detrimental impact on PRI’s 325 clients.
Clients’ “new normal” includes a lack of day programs as well as no transportation and no job support coaches and other support staff to assist. A big concern is that clients are losing long-held daily routines as well as their working and personal relationships. Isolation is a huge worry as people with disabilities lose ground in skills training. It’s a new normal Zbaracki and others say isn’t acceptable.
About 750 adults with disabilities were impacted when Opportunity Partners closed its five disability day programs in mid-March. The programs, located in Minnetonka, Coon Rapids and Plymouth, provide employment, training and enrichment activities. Closing the programs impacts 60 percent of the nonprofit’s revenues.
“We are so grateful to all who have reached out to see how the recent events have impacted the people we serve,” said President and CEO Armando Camacho. “Although our day services are temporarily closed, we continue to care for over 300 individuals living in our group homes and apartments – they need us now more than ever as they are home all day with no programs to attend. We also continue to provide job coaching and support to about 100 people with disabilities who work in industries deemed essential.”
Some organizations have radically changed service delivery. Julie Guidry, Upstream Arts co-founder and executive director, notes that the challenges people with disabilities face mean that many likely face longer periods of isolation in the time of COVID-19. She and co-founder Matt Guidry have not been able to see their son Caleb for several weeks. Caleb’s compromised immune system means the family and his fellow group home residents must take extra precautions.
The Minneapolis-based nonprofit halted in-person operations in mid- March, affecting as many as 35 classes each week with 400 participants of all ages and abilities. “We closed down physical classes on a Friday, entered the virtual world the following Monday and by the end of the week had produced new content and plans for our classes for the following week,” said Julie Guidry.
Upstream Arts is using the pandemic experience to develop virtual ways of working that will make its programs more accessible for more people with disabilities for years to come. The new programming, called studio ACCESS, thus far includes two-minute community videos with short activities that can be done at home. Five-minute partner videos offer signature curriculum designed for teachers and caregivers. Livestream classes offer more opportunities.
One month into social distancing, Upstream bounced back to 11 livestream classes per week with current partners and students who are excited to see each other, The teaching artists have produced 20 curriculum videos,. More partners and a series of open enrollment classes are in the works.