Regional News -- August 2021

Regional News -- August 2021

Wage change brings mixed response

More than 8,000 Minnesotans who have jobs at sheltered workshops will no longer be paid a “subminimum” wage, as a result of a law change this summer. Federal workforce data shows that Minnesota has the highest number of sheltered workshop employees in the U.S.

Despite recent efforts to expand work opportunities, Minnesota still has one of the lowest rates of integrated employment in the nation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. A 2020 state survey found that only 57 percent of adults with developmental disabilities report having a job with income — largely unchanged from a decade ago. Only 17 percent of Minnesotans with developmental disabilities believed their employment prospects would improve in the next two years, the survey found.

Subminimum wages will be phased out by August 2025. Legislation also provides $14.1 million in grants to help employers change their business models.

Paying subminimum wages dates from the Great Depression. The practice is now seen as discriminatory, exploitative and a violation of civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“The world is moving in this direction,” said Sen. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), chairman of the Human Services Reform Finance and Policy Committee. “Everyone deserves a chance to be as independent as possible — and they shouldn’t be trapped in a subminimum wage job when they could work at a market wage.”

A Star Tribune investigation in 2015 found that many in Minnesota’s workshops spend years toiling in poverty and isolation with little hope for advancement.

Phasing out subminimum wages would force dramatic changes at centers that provide a wide range of support services for people with disabilities. Finding staff and supports as clients transition into the regular workforce is a worry.

Some parents of adult children with disabilities support the alternative wage system, partly due to fears that their children will have nowhere to go if workshops close. In small towns the workshops or day activity centers are a lifeline for people with disabilities, providing transportation, social activities and more.

Jim Clapper, co-chairman of a grassroots coalition of Minnesota families with loved ones with disabilities, is an outspoken supporter of subminimum wage employment. The system gave his son, Bob, who has Down syndrome, the opportunity to become accustomed to a structured work environment and build social skills. After three years in a workshop, Bob gained enough confidence to transition to a mainstream job at a supermarket in St. Paul.

Yet others said they considered sheltered workshops to be dehumanizing, Alex Jaffe, 33, who has Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, recalled the tedium of spending his days packing zip ties into plastic bags at a workshop. Jaffe, who is now employed as a security guard at $19 an hour, said no one ever asked him about his career ambitions or told him he was capable of working in the community at a higher wage.

(Source: Star Tribune)

City Council approves settlement

St. Paul City Council in July settled a pending legal claim filed by a former mayoral aide. Hope Hoffman, who said she was discriminated against due to disability, received $76,000. Of that amount about $23,000 will cover lost wages, $23,000 will cover emotional distress, and $30,000 will be paid to her legal counsel.

The city makes no admission of culpability as part of the settlement.

Hoffman is the daughter of Sen John Hoffman (DFL – Champlain). She recently served on the Young Women’s Cabinet of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. She was born with spina bifida and walks with a prosthetic leg as a result of medical amputation. In June 2019 she began working for Mayor Melvin Carter as a policy associate.

Some of her city duties included attending public events. She told a legislative committee in 2020 that her work changed over time. She was assigned duties that are physically difficult if not impossible. Then when she didn’t perform her duties to the satisfaction of supervisors, they justified sitting in on all of her meetings to see if she was able to do the work.

Hoffman filed a complaint with the city’s human resources department but was told to take her concerns to the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator. He asked that she put in a formal request for accommodations. Her complaint against a program manager was investigated and closed without disciplinary action, according to the mayor’s office.

Hoffman also filed a claim with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, which she later withdrew. She left city employment in October 2019.

In a written statement at the time of Hoffman’s testimony, Carter’s office indicated they worked with Hoffman to accommodate her disability, going so far as to allow her to park in the deputy mayor’s parking spot, which is closer to the City Hall entrances than typical street parking. She was issued a lightweight, portable computer tablet and given the flexibility to perform some of her duties from home.

In the statement, Carter said, “I’m disheartened our efforts to ensure Ms. Hoffman’s success were not enough to make her feel supported. I am working with city leadership and staff to learn from and prevent this experience from recurring in the future.”

(Source: Pioneer Press)

Senator reveals ALS diagnosis

Sen. David Tomassoni

Sen. David Tomassoni (I – Chisholm) has revealed that he has been diagnosed with ALS. He announced the diagnosis in a letter in the Mesabi Tribune.

ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a progressive, neurodegenerative illness that affects muscle control. Those with the disease may eventually lose the ability to even speak or breathe. There is currently no known cure.

Tomassoni, 68, has served in the Minnesota Legislature since 1992, representing a district on the Iron Range. He was initially elected to the House, where he served four terms. He was first elected to the Senate

He plans to continue to serve to the best of his abilities but acknowledged the challenges ahead. “There is no sugar coating it — this is a tough disease, and I will feel the effects of it in my speech, my movement, and my life,” he said.

“I give you my word that my brain and my body will continue to represent you with the same passion and vigor I’ve tried to give in the past,” he said.

Tomassoni for years was affiliated with the DFL. But after the 2020 election, he and Sen. Tom Bakk announced that they were leaving the DFL caucus to become independents. Both consider themselves to be political moderates.

Prior to joining the state Legislature, he had a prolific hockey career in Italy, playing 16 seasons over there and joining the country’s Olympic team in 1984.

Said Tomassoni in his letter: “I have been fortunate and blessed in my life, my career, in sports, and with friends and a great family. This is the next challenge.’

(Source: Mesabi Tribune, Bring Me the News)

Police look at new models

Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center officials are involved in new civilian crisis response teams to handle mental health emergencies without police.

The Minneapolis pilot program, operated by Richfield-based Canopy Mental Health & Consulting, features mental health professionals in two-person teams who will always be on call. This summer the Minneapolis City Council approved a two-year, $6 million contract with Canopy, which beat out three other providers. Officers will still respond to some mental health-related emergencies, for instance those involving a weapon, but the new mobile response teams will be dispatched to many behavioral health calls.

The change fulfills a key demand among many activists, who since George Floyd’s murder have taken aim at the city’s reliance on police for emergencies that don’t necessarily require an armed response.

In December 2020, the City Council voted to redirect nearly $8 million from the Minneapolis Police Department’s budget to fund its vision of crime prevention, which prioritizes mental health care and drug treatment to address the cycles of trauma that can lead to violence in poor communities.

MPD and other departments across the country have for years trained officers in crisis intervention, but often officers who encounter someone in the throes of a mental health crisis have had few options. Critics say that sending an armed officer to try to defuse a situation involving a mentally ill person could have the opposite effect.

The Brooklyn Center City Council is looking at ways to implement public safety-related changes in the wake of the deaths of Daunte Wright and Kobe Dimock-Heisler.

A number of organizational and policy changes to Brooklyn Center’s public safety apparatus are in the works, including the introduction of an unarmed traffic enforcement division and rerouting some emergency calls to trained medical and mental health professionals instead of the police.

Mayor Mike Elliott said that  some changes could be made right away and others would take more time. “Statistically, if we don’t get to work right now, we’re going to have another killing before this all gets implemented.”

Calls pertaining to medical, mental health, disability-related or behavior or social needs would be handled by a community response department consisting of medical and mental health professionals, social workers and other volunteers.

(Source: Star Tribune, KSTP-TV)

Campers return to favorite spots

After a silent summer on the spacious grounds of Camp Knutson, staff at the Crosslake camp that hosts people with disabilities eagerly anticipated the return of campers.

“That’s what you miss most – you miss hearing the laughter of the kids,” said Jared Griffin, Camp Knutson senior director. “So it’ll be good to have some of that laughter back on the grounds this summer.”

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota camp on Lower Whitefish and Big Trout lakes to in-person campers last year. Virtual programs took place. Volunteers and staff wrote postcards to campers and offered fun activities online and through social media.

But it wasn’t the same as having in-person camp. Careful planning allowed the camp to reopen this season. Steps taken include locating hand sanitizing stations throughout camp, installing a touchless drinking fountain, adding more picnic tables for outdoor meals and changing cleaning procedures.

Campers must have a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before arriving at camp or proof of vaccination. They will have to answer COVID-19 screening questions, have their temperatures checked and undergo other daily health checks. A cabin is set aside for those who become unwell and may need to quarantine.

Camp Knutson has also limited numbers of campers at any one time, Virtual camp is also offered.

Not every Minnesota camp for children with disabilities has opened its doors this summer. Some camps have had to cancel sessions due to lack of staff.

(Source: Brainerd Dispatch)

Volunteer builds accessible tables

While volunteering for the Miracle League of North Mankato, Jon Luepke saw an opportunity to improve Fallenstein Field.

“I noticed the picnic tables they had weren’t accessible for someone in a wheelchair to pull up next to or at the end of,” he said. The 17-year-old, who’s working on his Eagle Scout award, and his Boy Scout Troop #29 of North Mankato sprang into action.

They and their leaders recently assembled and donated three wheelchair accessible picnic tables to the nonprofit. The tables feature overhangs on each end, allowing someone in a wheelchair to pull up underneath them rather than having to lean forward to reach the tabletop.

The service project was a chance to help the community, said Luepke.

“It just feels good to see them in use,” he said.

Luepke, a senior at Mankato West High School started volunteering at the Miracle League’s accessible softball and baseball leagues about three years ago. A friend and fellow scout lives with disabilities and played in Miracle League games, which led him to start volunteering.

Luepke played baseball growing up. The Miracle League allows children and adults with disabilities to have the same opportunities.

“It’s just awesome to give back to the community, to see them glowing with excitement,” he said.

Lloyd Lumber donated the wood used for the project, with Caswell Sports also offering assistance.

Now installed, the tables make the playground even more inclusive, said Amy Jordan, Miracle League development director. She praised Luepke for noticing a need and responding to it.

(Source: Mankato Free Press)