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Understanding impacts of the disability staffing crisis

As legislators work to raise pay rates for direct support staffers, the lives of people with disabilities are upended.

Dan Jarvis.
Dan Jarvis brings up an image on his tablet to show a visitor April 18. The staffing crisis in home care and day programs has impacted Jarvis, who has autism.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Before the pandemic, Dan Jarvis was on his way to levels of self-reliance he’d never known.

A 30-year-old lifelong Duluth man with autism, Jarvis was living in a group home not far from his parents' house in the Hunters Park neighborhood when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. At the time, he had an approaching goal to get his own apartment using day-to-day support from a personal care attendant.

But the pandemic sidetracked Jarvis. Like many folks with loved ones who are disabled, the Jarvises took their son, Dan, back home rather than face the pandemic apart full time due to rigid group home health protocols.

“He’s lost some of his independence living at home with us,” said his father, Sid Jarvis.

“We’ll have to wait until the employment situation improves before we can look at him moving into his own apartment now,” added his mother, Deb Jarvis.

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Dan Jarvis.
Sid Jarvis and his son, Dan Jarvis, do a brief hand clasp after a fist bump.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Staffing levels for personal care attendant services, group homes and day programs have tanked. Group homes, particularly in southeastern Minnesota, are shuttering.

An industry that used to see its operators bring in full classes of new recruits at a time now finds those same operators desperate to welcome a single new face.

“We could not find people to consistently work,” said Michelle Hooey, executive director of DRCC, relating the story of how the Duluth-based company was forced to close a pair of group homes in Aurora and Two Harbors.

Hooey said the company remains 77 full-time employees short in its 400-person workforce. She hesitated to call it a staffing crisis.

“We can overuse that term and people lose interest,” Hooey said. “But we’re at a point if we don’t get a breather, I don’t know what to do next.”

On the morning of her interview with the News Tribune, Hooey worked direct care in one of the company’s more than 30 group homes.

“I don’t need accolades,” she said, describing home care and day program outfits as being reliant on people who are passionate about caregiving.

“The individuals we support are deserving of a good life, and rely on us to support them and speak with a strong voice,” she added.

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State legislators appear to be listening. There’s a spending bill being negotiated in both the state House of Representatives and Senate that would provide permanent resources needed to raise wages and benefits for direct support professionals.

“The profession is not getting high enough wages,” said state Rep. Jen Schultz, DFL-Duluth. “It’s very rewarding work, but it’s also hard work. People who work in it want to stay in the field, they just want to be able to feed their families, too.”

Earlier in the pandemic, Schultz authored a bill with bipartisan support that Gov. Tim Walz signed into law which created an emergency staffing pool for places such as group homes and long-term care facilities. As part of the stopgap measure, the state is subsidizing wages for staff currently being recruited. But the need for a long-term solution and the state’s $7.7 billion surplus have officials calling for immediate help.

“It is critical that the Legislature invests in the wages and benefits for direct support professionals — this session,” said Julie Johnson, president and chief executive officer for Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation.

Not addressing wages would mean losing more workers to the commercial sector, where starting wage increases and signing bonuses have siphoned some of the direct support workforce.

Dan Jarvis.
Dan Jarvis talks with his father, Sid, at the family’s Duluth home.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Not addressing wages this session will continue to limit access for Minnesotans with disabilities to essential disability supports,” Johnson said.

Hermantown resident Marge Johnson is mother to a 53-year-old daughter with a developmental disability. Johnson's daughter lives in a group home in Duluth's Woodland neighborhood. The daughter’s day programming hours have been cut dramatically. She used to volunteer and do things like take part in a book club.

“She’s lived as full of a life as she can live,” Johnson said.

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But Johnson’s daughter, who Johnson declined to name, is struggling with having intermittent day programming due to staffing shortages.

“Like a lot of folks, she works better on predictability and knowing what to expect,” Johnson said. “When each week she’s not sure what the days are going to look like, that’s difficult emotionally.”

At Residential Services Inc., in Duluth, the company's 20% staffing vacancy rate isn’t as bad as the industry average of 33%, said Executive Director Jon Nelson.

“We’re working our tails off,” Nelson said, “and 20% seems terrible enough.”

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the home care industry was preparing for the loss of direct support staffers as trends showed fewer people entering the workforce.

“Prior to the pandemic, we all knew things were going to get bad anyways,” Nelson said. “The pandemic acted as a catalyst instead, and what we expected over four or five years seemed to come all at once.”

The industry has long relied on college students to supplement its workforce, Nelson said, and that pipeline has all but dried up. With long shifts required to provide staffing coverage every hour of every day, more flexible alternatives with better pay have eaten into the direct care workforce.

RSI has raised its wages $3.50, to $15 per hour, over the past two years with little impact to show for it.

“I feel like we’ve lost ground, actually,” Nelson said.

An increase in the money the state pays agencies to care for people with disabilities is only part of what’s needed, Schultz said.

“We have to reenvision how we care for older adults and people with disabilities,” the Duluth lawmaker said. “We should have housing options with caregivers living in the same housing as those who want to live independently, but may need some additional assistance. We need older adults living with younger people, and we need to go back to caring for each other. I really do see some big disruptions coming in a good way to how we live and how we care for one another.”

Dan Jarvis.
Dan Jarvis.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

But monumental change can take years.

For the past 11 years, Dan Jarvis had attended a day program for 30 hours a week. He’d go bowling, get coffee, share meals, watch the ships roll in, take long walks, and do volunteer work with peers and day-program personnel.

Now, he’s attending a day program for six hours a week, and not nearly every day. Most of his time is spent at home, with his mom and dad.

“He really misses the social interactions with other people,” said Sid Jarvis as Dan scrolled through photos of ships and trains on his computer tablet. “He doesn't get that.”

“They’re very honest with us,” Deb Jarvis said of Choice, Unlimited, the local day program that’s struggling like so many others to hire direct support staff.

“We understand the situation they’re in," Deb added. "It’s rough. Choice has done everything they can. They just recently hired another staff. It hasn’t increased Dan’s hours yet, but we’re hoping it might.”

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Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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