Regional News - May 2022

Study spaces changes made 

Minnesota State University (MSU) Mankato will relocate and add study pods, responding to an investigation into accessibility concerns for people with mobility disabilities. 

A complaint filed in September 2021 prompted the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to investigate the matter. MSU had invested about $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding to purchase and install 100 “MavPODs” around campus prior to the fall semester. 

Social work professor Nancy Fitzsimons filed the initial complaint, indicating that MSU officials were well aware that they would be discriminating against students, faculty and staff with mobility disabilities on campus by creating 100-plus inaccessible spaces on campus” 

The OCR resolution, signed by MSU’s chief of staff in mid-March, calls for MSU to relocate some accessible pods and order at least one more by May 1 to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. 

MSU officials issued a statement saying that the university was pleased to reach an agreement on the pods. 

MSU initially installed four larger pods accessible to students or staff with wheelchairs or motorized scooters after the initial complaint. But three of those pods were placed in a building mainly used for campus administration, not classes. Moving the pods makes them accessible along more common routes on campus and to have no more than one in a single building.. 

Part of the agreement calls for installing a pod in the Memorial Library by September 1. MSU will need to ensure the pods are distributed across the campus 

(Source: Free Press of Mankato) 

North Memorial faces sanctions 

Minneapolis-based North Memorial Health violated civil rights law when it failed to hire an applicant who is deaf because of her disability and failed to provide her a reasonable accommodation, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit. 

North Memorial is a health care provider that operates two hospitals and 26 specialty and primary care clinics, urgent and emergency care facilities and medical transportation services throughout the Twin Cities metropolitan area. 

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, the individual applied for a greeter position in July 2020 at North Memorial Health. The applicant was qualified for the greeter position and could perform the essential functions of the job which included greeting visitors, communicating COVID-19 masking standards and policies, giving directions and keeping the area tidy and welcoming. The EEOC’s lawsuit alleges that North Memorial Health failed to accommodate and hire the applicant because of her disability. 

This alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which makes it unlawful to discriminate against, fail to hire, and fail to accommodate qualified individuals with disabilities. The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The EEOC seeks back pay, compensatory and punitive damages as well as injunctive relief. 

“It is illegal under the ADA to refuse to hire an applicant because she is deaf or hearing-impaired,” said Julianne Bowman, district director of the EEOC’s Chicago District. “Discrimination against applicants with disabilities is a problem that the EEOC will continue to vigorously address.” 

Gregory Gochanour, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Chicago District, said, “Unfortunately, when deaf people apply for jobs, some still encounter discrimination. Some employers erroneously believe that they cannot perform the job because of their disability or discriminate against them based on myths, fears and stereotypes. The EEOC will prosecute such violations of the ADA to ensure that deaf and hearing-impaired workers are not subjected to discrimination.” 

The EEOC’s legal team in its Minneapolis Area Office will conduct the litigation under the management of the agency’s Chicago District Office. That office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement and litigation in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. 

(Source: EEOC) 

Loss of mental health beds opposed 

Fairview Health Services’ plans to close its inpatient mental health unit in downtown St. Paul are facing opposition from Ramsey County and St. Paul leaders. They contend that fewer beds “will lead to individuals being sent back out onto the street without adequate access to treatment.” 

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, Sheriff Bob Fletcher and Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo, joined by St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell, say they have too many unanswered questions about Fairview’s plans to close the unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital by July and build a new facility in 2023. They fear an interruption in services for “vulnerable community members” in the interim. 

“We … ask that you suspend any closure plans until an adequate plan is in place to provide for the safety and well-being of individuals with mental health symptoms and the community,” according to the two-page letter to Fairview President and CEO James Hereford. 

Last year, Fairview Health Services announced the state’s oldest hospital would be converted into a community wellness and health equity center. As part of that transition, its inpatient mental health and addiction units would be closed. St. Joseph’s is licensed for 87 mental health beds but currently has staff for 40. 

Fairview officials said inpatient adult mental health and addiction services will be expanded at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis immediately with plans underway to build a new 144-bed mental health and addiction hospital on the former Bethesda Hospital site in St. Paul. 

Fairview officials said they were blindsided by the letter after dozens of productive and transparent meetings with county and city leaders around their plans at both St. Joseph’s and Bethesda. Fairview said they are investing and innovating in the east metro, which will ultimately result in an increase in mental health and addiction beds in St. Paul. 

“We appreciate that the closure of St. Joseph’s Hospital is a significant change for the St. Paul community. Even so, we believe it is opening the door for innovative solutions to solve some of our community’s most pressing health crises,” said Fairview spokeswoman Aimee Jordan. 

But local officials who penned the letter say they’re worried about a lack of east metro services in the interim as well as “concerning and unanswered questions” about how future services will be delivered, including “if there are limitations on admittance” based on insurance and the ability to pay. 

Law enforcement across the county rely on inpatient mental health beds for 72-hour emergency holds for individuals who are mentally ill, chemically dependent and pose a danger to self or others if not immediately detained. Those beds are also used for longer term treatment and commitments. 

“As partners who encounter those with mental illness daily in our community, our law enforcement and correctional officers and civil commitment attorneys struggle to meet the safety and legal needs of those in crisis as well as the community,” according to the letter. “Having a local and stable mental health care facility partnership is critical to our success in managing these challenging and dynamic needs.” 

Fairview leaders in late 2019 had targeted St. Joseph’s and Bethesda for closure, citing millions in annual losses. Fairview officials said the plan is for health services to remain at both campuses and they are moving quickly to get legislative approvals needed to start construction at the Bethesda site and open in 2023. 

(Source: Star Tribune) 

State, LA Fitness reach settlement 

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) has announced a settlement agreement that requires LA Fitness operator Fitness International, LLC to ensure all its fitness centers in Minnesota are accessible to people with disabilities.  

MDHR’s investigation found that an LA Fitness in New Brighton provided non-slip rubber mats in its lockers rooms for years to help keep its members safe on wet surfaces. For Greg Reid, a member with a mobility-related disability, the mats were essential to prevent him from slipping. Without providing any notice or explanation, LA Fitness removed these mats. Reid repeatedly asked for the mats to be reinstalled or for handrails to be installed. 

However, LA Fitness ignored his requests, violating their own policy to be responsive whenever someone requests an accommodation. The business did not permanently reinstall the mats or install handrails. By denying Reid equal access, LA Fitness violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act for disability discrimination.  

The settlement resolves the case and requires LA Fitness to ensure that people with disabilities can use their fitness centers in Minnesota without experiencing discrimination. The company is also required to install handrails in both locker rooms at its New Brighton LA Fitness. 

“I’m happy I could make things safer and better for myself and for all people with disabilities who use LA Fitness in Minnesota,” said Reid. 

“Ensuring that public places are accessible to people with disabilities is critical to building an inclusive and thriving Minnesota,” said Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero. “This case is a reminder to all businesses that when spaces are accessible, when they are universally designed, they not only benefit people with disabilities, but in many situations, everyone using those spaces benefits.”  

Disability discrimination is consistently one the largest areas of discrimination MDHR investigates. 

(Source: Minnesota Department of Human Rights) 

PTSD-related claims soaring 

Hundreds of Minnesota police officers in Minnesota diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder have severed ties with their departments in the past two years, resulting in millions of dollars in payouts through workers’ compensation settlements and state disability pensions. 

The issue is most acute in Minneapolis, where the city has paid out more than $22 million in workers’ comp to about 130 officers for PTSD-related claims since the police murder of George Floyd in 2020, according to a Star Tribune review of City Council minutes. 

That number could rise to 200 officers and a total of $35 million in workers’ comp settlements, according to an attorney representing most of the officers. 

Minneapolis City Council members have publicly and repeatedly wrung their hands over the settlements for officers, even as most of them have voted to approve the payouts — most with price tags ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 each. Council members have been advised by city attorneys that rejecting a settlement could lead to even more costly litigation. 

There also has been a rise in the number of police officers from across the state applying for and receiving permanent disability pensions. The Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), the state pension system, received 666 applications from 2019 through 2021 for duty disability — injuries caused in the line of duty — that were submitted by public safety workers. Eighty percent were PTSD cases. 

Of the 666 applications, 86 percent came from police officers, 7 percent from sheriff’s departments and 7 percent from firefighters. PERA initially approved 583 and denied 15 applications for duty disability — all of which were subsequently approved. Another 68 applications were still being processed as of Jan. 25, the most recent information available. 

Public officials say many of the police officers who are leaving and getting the payouts could instead get treatment to help them recover from PTSD and go back to work. The Minnesota Legislature is considering a bill that could make that happen, with state lawmakers urging treatment. 

(Source: Star Tribune) 

Outreach to farmers facing stress 

Prompted by the many sources of stress affecting farmers and ranchers, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), Linder Farm Network and the Red River Farm Network have joined forces to expand a radio series called “TransFARMation” throughout the state. The series profiles people in agriculture who have coped with challenging situations and highlights sources of support. 

“Farming is a stressful business even during the best of times” said Linder Farm Network owner Lynn Ketelsen. “Right now, crop prices are surging, and the pandemic is waning, but many producers are experiencing high input prices, high feed costs, livestock disease, and challenges related to retirement and farm succession.” 

The series was a big hit with listeners when it debuted on Red River Farm Network in 2019. the 60-second prime time radio stories were heard on all 40 Linder Farm Network stations in central and southern Minnesota, as well as Red River Farm Network starting in April. 

In addition, 10-15-minute companion podcasts can be found at https://www.rrfn.com/transFARMation. 

“Many people are struggling, and they need to know they’re not alone,” said Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen. “It’s powerful to hear farmers talk about some of the strategies and solutions that helped them when things got tough.” 

TransFARMation is supported by funding from Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Program award. the MDA, and a growing list of sponsors. Broadcasts are solely the responsibility of the creators and do not necessarily represent the official views of the USDA or MDA. 

The effort also highlights the free and confidential Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline, which  is available 24 hours, seven days a week at 833-600-2670 or text farmstress to 898211. 

(Source: Linder Farm Network) 

Twins unveil sensory suite 

A day at the ballpark can be noisy and stressful for anyone, but especially those who have sensory issues. Now the Minnesota Twins are offering a place at Target Field to decompress. 

The new suite was unveiled on opening day. The space is set up for both children and adults, to offer calming breaks from the action on the ballfield. 

The suite rooms feature include beanbag chairs, lighting that can change color, and other amenities. 

The suite is located in what used to be Suite 1. Guest services can direct game attendees to the suite. The space was recently renovated for neuroatypical guests of all ages and abilities to use. Trained staff are on-site to assist guests. 

The United Healthcare Sensory Suite’s unique location is meant to ensure accessibility, while also helping to ease guests’ transition back to their ticketed seats by offering a controlled, outdoor area overlooking the game. This outdoor option makes Target Field’s sensory area among a select few professional sports venues nationally to have a view of the playing surface. 

In addition, sensory kits will be available for guests to check out at various Guest Services stations throughout Target Field for no cost. These are also provided by United HealthCare. 

(Source: KARE 11, KSTP, United HealthCare) 

Projects include student supports 

U.S. Sen. Tina Flint Smith (D-Minnesota) has announced the funding of several special projects in the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area, for a total of almost $4 million.  

“All of these projects are critical investments in communities across the Twin Cities metro area,” said Sen. Smith. “Investing in Native health care and job training, expanding STEM education and supporting students with disabilities, and spurring economic opportunity for the Black community are all important ways to support the diverse communities that call the Twin Cities home.” 

The funding allocations include $400,000 to expanding access to STEM education and supporting students with disabilities. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. $400,000 is awarded to Ignite Afterschool to develop a statewide Minnesota STEM Ecosystems Network. The funds will support the public-private partnership between Ignite Afterschool and their partner organization South East Service Cooperative. Their combined effort will increase access, opportunity and identify gaps to STEM experiences by youth in Minnesota. 

“Our shared prosperity depends on inspiring and preparing the next generation of STEM professionals,” said Kari Denissen Cunnien, executive director of Ignite Afterschool. “We are grateful to Senator Smith for supporting efforts that deepen the quality of out of school STEM learning and the partnerships that build ecosystems and ladders of support for young people in communities across Minnesota, especially for those most underrepresented in STEM fields.” 

Another $449,000 is awarded to Best Buddies International, Inc. for the ‘Best Buddies in Minnesota Inclusion Project’ which will reduce social barriers by fostering meaningful friendships between students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their general education peers. 

“Minnesota is fortunate to have Senator Smith because she recognizes that connection, belonging, and social inclusion are imperative for creating strong and healthy communities,” said Katey DeMarais, State Director for Best Buddies in Minnesota. “Thanks to the Senator’s advocacy, Best Buddies will be able to use these funds to expand our one-to-one friendship programs to more schools and communities throughout the state, sending a powerful message that people with intellectual disabilities are valued members of our society and deserve to be included.” 

(Source: Targeted News Service) 

MNSCU looks at changes 

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system will review its harassment and discrimination policy and re-evaluate how it structures administrator contracts amid criticism of how it’s handled college president misconduct cases. 

Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra and the system’s board of trustees announced the reviews after Star Tribune reports revealed that Malhotra allowed a former president of Hennepin Technical College to stay on the job amid multiple accusations of harassment and discrimination. he also issued a public apology. 

Former Hennepin Technical College President Merrill Irving Jr. resigned recently after a newspaper report detailed accusations that he belittled co-workers with disabilities and made sexually derogatory comments about colleagues. Minnesota House Republicans called for Irving to resign after the report. 

Upon his resignation, Irving was immediately reassigned to an administrative job in the Minnesota State system’s central office, where he will be employed through June 30 on his same presidential salary of $232,000. The system has been criticized by legislators and student groups for appointing college presidents who step down amid accusations of misconduct to high-paying administrative jobs in its central office. 

“It is clear that there is a larger systemic issue here that can no longer be ignored,” said Axel Kylander, president of the community college student association LeadMN. “It is time to change the culture at Minnesota State.” 

System leaders are reviewing the harassment and discrimination policy and will propose changes to the board in May, Malhotra said. 

Minnesota State leaders found that Irving made “derisive statements about individuals of a protected class” but determined his comments were not “pervasive or severe” enough to merit a violation of the current policy. Malhotra said an updated policy needs to be “more responsive” to prevent similar situations from occurring. 

Kylander argued the board should tap an outside expert to review the harassment policy instead of the system office. 

Jay Cowles, chair of the board of trustees, said the board has directed Minnesota State’s internal audit office to review “best practices for administrative contracts regarding severance” at other colleges and consider changes to the system’s presidential contract language. 

Jennifer Erwin, president of the AFSCME Minnesota State policy committee and an employee at Rochester Community and Technical College, urged the system to ensure there is a “check and balance process” before renewing presidential contracts. 

Trustee Javier Morillo called for the system to create an “after-action report” detailing how Minnesota State leaders handled the Hennepin Technical College situation and what lessons were learned. Morillo said he found it “embarrassing” the situation reached a point where legislators intervened. 

(Source: Star Tribune)