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Staff shortage challenges disability community

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Staff, board members, volunteers and clients from several agencies gathered Monday at Bear Creek Service as Mayor Kim Norton proclaimed this week as Direct Service Professionals Recognition Week in Rochester.
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Becca Anklan said she relies on direct service professionals to be part of the community.

"I love how we all support one another, and we’re like a big family here," said Anklan, a client of Cardinal of Minnesota residential services and Possibilities programs. Her comments came during a celebration of Mayor Kim Norton’s proclamation of Direct Service Professionals Recognition Week in the city.

Now, the local agencies that provide support services for people with disabilities are joining forces in hopes of tackling shared challenges .

"The shortage of direct support professionals is having an effect on people first," said Cindy Cindy Ostrowski, CEO of Hiawatha Homes, which operates community-based homes for people with disabilities.

She said the organization recently made the difficult decision to end around-the-clock nursing support, which means three of its clients will need to relocate.

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"Right now, their teams are looking for creative options for them," she said, noting the goal is to keep the clients in the community to be close to family and friends.

Amy Thompson, director of Olmsted County’s Adult and Family Services, said that could be difficult, since the combination of services Hiawatha Homes has been providing is unique in the region.

"There are very few facilities in the state that can provide that service, so they may have to move outside the community," she said during a recent discussion with Olmsted County commissioners.

Lack of staff

Ostrowski said the change largely stems from a lack of nursing staff, which has been a struggle for two years. In addition, direct support professionals are becoming hard to find.

A study of seven Southeast Minnesota providers found a 165-person staffing shortage throughout the agencies.

Ostrowski said it’s only one of the reasons she asked Thompson to help facilitate a meeting of the various private providers in the county. The meeting is slated for Wednesday, with state and county officials invited to help discuss needs and options for the future.

Bruce Remme, executive director of ABC Ability Building Center, said other resource needs will be discussed, but the workforce shortage remains a key concern.

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"When the economy is strong nonprofits tend to be left behind when it comes to resources," he said.

State funding falls short

Earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a 4.7 percent increase in funds used to pay people providing support for much of the state’s disabled population. The added funding goes into effect next year, but follows a 7 percent cut in related public funding in 2018.

"The number needs to be more like 12 percent," he said of the pending increase.

Rich Sherer, Hiawatha Homes’s chief financial officer, said the 2020 change will raise the Minnesota Direct Care reimbursement rate from $13.53 to $14.17.

Remme said the lack of funding affects what agencies can pay direct service professionals, the people who make the agencies’ programs possible. The low pay means it’s difficult to fill open positions.

ABC has more than 20 vacant positions, which has caused it to stop taking referrals into programs.

"We felt we had to take that position to stabilize what we are doing now," he said, noting space in programs will open as soon as staffing numbers increase.

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Until then, he said a growing number of potential clients are left without a place to turn.

"We have a lot of desperate parents calling right now," he said.

Linda Driessen, executive director of Bear Creek Services, said such decisions have ripple effects.

$12 to start

When programs are closed, she said group homes can require increased staffing for clients who have no place to go.

With $12 starting salaries, many new hires are forced to search for supplemental incomes. The result can mean staff members earn better pay and less stress with employers that don’t rely on state funding to set salaries.

"We can’t compete with them," she said.

A March study of seven Southeast Minnesota providers shows the agencies had a combined 165 openings, with average hourly compensation for direct support professionals at $14.17, exceeding what the state provides.

Driessen said the work means half of any new hires frequently find different jobs in their first year, which adds to the challenge.

Some individuals committed to providing services, however, have jobs that span over two or more agencies.

Driessen and Ostrowski said that could point toward potential efficiencies in a city where competing agencies have learned to work together to meet the needs of their clients.

"Hopefully, she are going to rally together and talk about our needs together," she said of Wednesday’s meeting.

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