ST. PAUL — The state agency that serves some of Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents is under scrutiny for how it treats its employees who have disabilities.

Two state senators are probing the Minnesota Department of Human Services after eight current and former employees told them the agency did not approve simple workplace accommodations. Sens. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, and Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, say they are so concerned by their findings that they are planning a legislative hearing on the issue in January.

“I’m disappointed because that organization should be the exemplar of meeting accommodations,” said Hoffman, who sits on the Senate human services reform committee with Abeler.

In most cases, the senators say, DHS management slow-walked accommodation requests to the point that employees began to suffer on the job, both in their performance and their personal health. That is consistent with what two former DHS employees told the Pioneer Press; these employees also spoke to the senators.

A common theme emerged in the senators’ inquiry: DHS managers lacked the training to work with employees who have disabilities, and accommodation requests often stalled in the bureaucracy of state government.

Advocates say that failing to reasonably accommodate people with disabilities isn’t just against the law, it’s wrong and hurts both the workers and the organization.

The allegations bring fresh scrutiny on DHS — an $18 billion agency charged with administering services to the disabled, elderly and poor — at a time when it is under fire on several fronts. The department has also been scrutinized for misspending nearly $80 million in federal funds, violating state contract laws and allegedly retaliating against whistleblowers.

To be clear, DHS approves most of the accommodation requests employees make. DHS data shows the agency approved 77 of 110 requests in fiscal year 2019, amounting to 70%.

But that rate of approval appears to be notably lower than other state agencies. Fiscal year 2019 data from 20 state agencies shows an overall approval rate of about 90%, according to preliminary data compiled by Minnesota Management and Budget.

In a statement, DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said the agency welcomes discussion about how it can make its workplace “more accommodating, inclusive and supportive for all employees.” She noted that 550 DHS employees have a disability, and the agency has approved more than 200 accommodations since July 2017.

“We respect and value our employees and encourage them to seek reasonable accommodations,” Harpstead said. “It is our responsibility as an employer to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities can request and receive appropriate assistance in the form of a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential functions of the job.”

However, DHS officials declined to discuss the specifics of any current or former employee, citing personnel restrictions.

‘Responses and excuses’

As a longtime champion for people with disabilities, Mohamed (Mourssi) Alfash was well-equipped to advocate for himself when DHS hired him in April.

Alfash has profound hearing loss, which affects his speech and can make it tricky for others to understand him.

He was hired in April as an equity coordinator in the agency’s office of inspector general, a position specifically intended to monitor how DHS’ investigatory arm treats minorities, as well as those with disabilities. His advocacy and his disability were well-known; Alfash is a member of the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing.

On April 7, Alfash requested 12 accommodations.

Most were for technical devices, such as headphones and speech-to-text software that aid in communications between the deaf and non-deaf.

Alfash also said he needed to work out of a quiet room — not a cubicle among a sea of cubicles — to effectively work because he easily gets distracted by background noise, which he is unable to filter out like people with normal hearing.

For months, he got none of what he requested. Emails show that through April, May and June, both Alfash and a third-party advocate continued to press Alfash’s supervisor for action — to no avail.

“There was a wide range of responses and excuses, such as we are still working on it, budget constraints, lack of funding, seeking approval from other departments including MNIT, unavailability of the item requested, lead time for delivery, etc.,” Alfash said.

In the end, Alfash said he received a microphone and a headset in late June but not the software or hardware to use them. An email from his supervisor suggested several requests were tied up in a back-and-forth between DHS and MNIT, the state’s information technology agency.

As for his office space, he never got it. Alfash said his supervisor told him they were reserved for management.

Alfash was terminated in July. His situation is complicated by the fact that he was also in a dispute with his bosses over whether he was being allowed to do his job as originally described when he was hired.

Alfash filed a complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over his treatment both related to his disability and his ultimate firing for insubordination, which he claimed was retaliation. The EEOC deemed his complaint unfounded, citing a lack of evidence, but Alfash says he’s planning to pursue the matter in court.

‘Reasonable accommodations’

The idea of asking for your own office because you have a disability might rub some the wrong way, acknowledges David Fenley, ADA director for the Minnesota Council on Disability, a state advisory board.

But it’s the law, he said, and for good reason.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide employees with “reasonable accommodations” if they’re necessary to allow the employee to succeed.

“It’s not a privilege,” Fenley said. “At best, these accommodations are equalizers.”

Employers in government and the private sector often struggle with accommodations, Fenley said, “either because they think it’s going to give one employee an unfair advantage or because they don’t really believe the medical condition requires the accommodation.”

That appears to be what happened with a former DHS employee who has autism, a condition that, like many involving the mind, is not always apparent.

This former employee asked to remain anonymous because what she experienced at DHS, along with other challenges related to her disability, have “fractured my professional identity enough.”

She worked at DHS for a time, left briefly, and returned in mid-2018. Upon her return, she learned that the accommodations she used to have were “no longer available,” even though they were still on record.

She resubmitted paperwork and went through the process again. Her main ask was for a job coach, to help her learn the social norms and cues of her new workplace. She said she first raised that request in her job interview and emphasized it as a “deal-breaker.”

The former employee began to receive some informal accommodations she had requested. She was given agendas before meetings and work directives in writing. And she got permission to record meetings where she presented work.

The request for a job coach, however, was never approved nor denied. As were most of her requests for accommodations.

As she waited, her performance suffered. She could not explain her learning process to colleagues without the help of a job coach. When she was trying to learn a complex database system, colleagues gave her verbal instructions, even though she cannot “absorb the information only by hearing it.”

She said her co-workers made subtle slights about her performance, and her supervisor encouraged her to disclose her disability to colleagues. She was not comfortable with that because she thought it would compromise how others saw her. The ADA generally prohibits employers from forcing employees to disclose a disability to their coworkers.

Her health began to erode because of the job environment. She went on medical leave and did not come back, resigning in October 2018.

Then she filed a complaint with the Department of Human Rights. DHS agreed to mediation and settled the case in January.

She came away from her time at DHS with the impression that managers do not know how to work with employees who have disabilities. They have set ideas on how things should be done, she said, and make little effort to understand disabilities.

“Some of the accommodations that are the most meaningful are the most difficult to obtain,” she said. “And others just seem to be negotiated in bad faith for reasons that I don’t fully understand.”

Senate hearing planned

Sen. Abeler described the stories he has heard as “entirely unacceptable.”

Abeler and Hoffman plan to call DHS officials to testify in front of the Senate committee sometime in January. The committee will hold hearings “every month” if needed, Abeler said, until DHS shows improvement in how it treats employees who have disabilities.

“I would have thought of all the agencies, that DHS would have been a leader in reaching out to and accommodating the needs of people with disabilities,” Abeler said. “And instead, nothing could be further from the truth.”