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Disability staff shortages increasing due to COVID, wage issues

Many programs providing employment and day enrichment supports had to shut down at the start of the pandemic.

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In this file photo, a group of consumers from Productive Alternatives works at Alexandria Extrusion with a job coach.
File / Alexandria Echo Press
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ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — Programs that support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are among the many affected by COVID and wage issues.

Many programs providing employment and day enrichment supports had to shut down at the start of the pandemic. Once they were able to reopen, they were unable to find adequate staffing.

"We're chronically short 15 to 20 positions across the state," said Steve Skauge, president of Productive Alternatives, a service that connects adults with disabilities to employment opportunities. "Most of our jobs are really hands-on with people with disability needs of one sort or another, so it's very difficult for us to try to find other ways (to fill them)."

As a result, people with disabilities end up not getting served.

"We have waiting lists all over the place because we just don't have enough staff to provide the service," Skauge said. Productive Alternatives is based in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, with additional branches in Moorhead, Perham, Brainerd, Little Falls and Alexandria.

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"We've got people who can and want to work that we're trying to serve, but if we don't have the staff to support those folks out on the job, then they can't get hired," he said. "It just kind of has a snowballing effect. We get calls from employers every day who want to hire the people we work with, but if we can't staff it, then it's not going to happen."

Part of the problem is money, Skauge said.

"Our wages are barely competitive," he said. "It's exacerbated now by the wage inflation that goes on currently. The bottom line is, we don't have the ability to set the price for our product. … We only get what the Legislature or the county will give us."

COVID also had a "huge" effect, Skauge said, because of enforced closures.

"When you're closed for a long period of time, you're not getting any revenue, and people quit," he said. "Employees left because they needed to buy milk and bread, too. Some of them came back, but not all of them."

While Productive Alternatives was able to stay solvent, a lot of providers didn't, Skauge said.

"We're getting back fairly close to the pre-COVID numbers … but we're kind of halted because we can't hire anybody," he said.

Work is currently being done to advocate legislatively. When it comes to legislative advocacy, most other groups can advocate for themselves, Skauge said.

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"When it comes to disability services, very few of the people we actually serve can advocate for themselves, and subsequently, not everybody has a personal connection to a person with a disability," he said.

As for now, Skauge said he is trying to raise awareness of the issue.

"We're hoping to make people aware of who we are and what we do," he said. "As a nonprofit, we don't have a lot of money to advertise."

Travis Gulbrandson covers several beats, including Osakis School Board and Osakis City Council, along with the Brandon-Evansville School Board. His focus will also be on crime and court news.
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