Providers of work and social activities for Minnesotans with disabilities are in crisis, with many facing massive cutbacks or even closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Clients with disabilities face the smaller, yet deeply personal losses of job and social skills as they sit at home. That was the message several service providers and parents of their clients had June 25 for a legislative committee.
“Our entire disabilities services sector is on the verge of collapse,” said Sen. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka). He chairs the Senate’s Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee. During the regular and special sessions, Abeler has been among state lawmakers sounding the alarm about the prospect of losing needed day services statewide.
Service providers and their advocacy groups are calling for $30 million in funding to simply keep the doors open until pandemic restrictions are eased. Providers closed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That has meant laying off staff and not providing jobs and activities for people with disabilities.
During the June special session, the Senate unanimously passed a funding package. But the House didn’t act. Pressure is also being brought to bear on Gov. Tim Walz to sign an emergency funding package. During the hearing, Abeler waved a copy of the relief bill, pleading with the governor to sign it. It’s a frustration service providers shared with the committee.
The toll is also on staff, with more than 3,600 employees furloughed or laid off. The statewide organization MOHR is tracking staff losses.
Service providers, including Floodwood Services and Training Inc. in the Duluth area and Big Lake-based Options Inc., told the committee that their revenues have fallen by 80 to 90 percent.
Dawn Lamping, executive director of Floodwood Services and Training Inc., said the program could be forced to shut down within six weeks. It serves about 60 adults. She struggled to get through her testimony. “Unless our program receives emergency funding very soon, we will close.”
Options Inc. has sustained monthly losses nearing $100,000. Executive Director Brenda Geldert described the situation as being “a constant state of distress.”
Southern Minnesota service provider STEP Inc. serves about 100 people. But the nonprofit is already looking at ways to handle a shutdown.
Statewide, the centers serve more than 30,000 adults with a wide range of disabilities. The pandemic has also raised red flags that people typically served by the centers are now isolated and losing ground with work and personal skills.
In June the Minnesota Department of Human Services modified rules to allow service providers to reopen with measures to reduce client exposure. Some people with disabilities have also been able to keep working in community settings, such as restaurants and on cleaning crews. Other ways to provide services are sought, with some services that could be offered virtually.
But the pandemic is a real threat, in day centers where people interact in close quarters and in group homes. Statistics presented June 25 indicate that than 300 Minnesotans who live in group homes have contracted COVID-19. At least 19 have died.
Watch the committee session online at the Senate website.