Work is an important part of Christin Hanson’s life. For years, the 37-year-old Eden Prairie resident has held part-time assembly jobs at a number of Twin Cities companies. Because she has intellectual challenges and ADHD, Hanson got these jobs through employment programs for people with disabilities.
Getting out in the world and doing meaningful work has always felt important for her mental health, Hanson said, plainly: “I like working. It makes me happy.”
Hanson’s employment program shut down during the pandemic. Without the regular routine of going to a job site, she said she spent all of her time in her group home. “It was the same thing every day,” she recalled. “I was at home all the time doing nothing, watching TV or talking on the phone. It was hard. I felt down.”
As the pandemic lessened and life started to return to normal for many people, Hanson decided she wanted to rejoin the working world. She and her mother Lynn contacted RISE, a nonprofit that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities find meaningful work.
Christin, Lynn Hanson said, “wants to work with RISE because they offer the most consistent work for their clients.” The Hansons soon learned that, due to serious staffing shortages, Christin would be put on a waiting list for employment services. Days stretched to weeks and then months. “She’s been waiting for a year and a half,” her mother said.
In the meantime, Hanson has been picking up temporary assembly gigs through another nonprofit, but she’s getting tired of waiting for her promised RISE job to come through.
Christin Hanson’s not alone in her struggles, said Lynn Noren, RISE president and CEO. Like many other parts of the state’s nonprofit sector, organizations that help people like her find work are woefully understaffed, struggling to fill the roles needed to keep their clients working or otherwise engaged. RISE serves about 1,200 people in their day and employment services, Noren explained, and at the moment, “we have over 300 clients we are trying to bring back to services.”
Filling jobs at agencies like RISE has never been easy, Noren said, but the pandemic-fueled Great Resignation has only made things worse. While nobody ever thought they’d get rich working for a social service agency, when fast-food pay began to top the wages of job coaches at places like RISE, things started falling apart.
“These programs are all funded through the state’s Medicaid waiver,” said Noren, who, as government affairs chair for the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation has a deep understanding of nonprofit funding streams. That means that wages for employees at RISE and other agencies that provide work opportunities and other daytime activities for people with physical and intellectual disabilities are set at outdated levels, and pay rates can’t rise without legislative approval.
“Minnesota uses a very specific rate methodology for all of our services,” Noren continued. “We don’t have any way to regulate that unless the state legislature takes action. Our wages are fundamentally structured to not be competitive.”
Not so long ago, Noren said, entry-level wages at RISE were $15-$17/hour. While modest, that was enough to attract employees, because many found it rewarding.
“In today’s workforce, that’s not a living wage,” Noren said. “It makes it very difficult to attract people to work in this field.”
Other organizations in this sector have been working hard to attract employees to fill open positions, said Michelle Dickerson, vice president of program services at MSS, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting people with disabilities.
“We’ve been reaching out to schools,” Dickerson said. “We are trying to educate people about these jobs. We are trying to reach out to a younger population.” To do that, she explained, she and her industry colleagues have tried billboard advertising, job fairs, hiring bonuses and social media campaigns.
Through the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation, industry leaders have joined forces, Dickerson said, hoping that together they may be able to influence change and attract more employees: “We feel like we are all in this together. We are excited when anybody gets to hire someone.”
Focus on the Legislature
Noren and Dickerson are already thinking ahead to January, when the Legislature is back in session.
“We are all preparing for an allocation. Our state association has been active in giving people information to reach out to candidates to make sure people who are running for office understand our service sector so we can hit the ground running with bills that are already drafted so they can get passed,” Noren said. Because this year is a budget session, she said, “we feel optimistic that we can make headway with this issue.”
The organization surveyed service providers and found that 3,500 Minnesotans with disabilities were on waiting lists to access services. Leaders emphasized the mental health impact of unemployment on their client base.
“As we know from our own lives, having purpose and meaning in our day, with the ability to interact with others who we don’t live with, is an essential component of quality of life,” the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation wrote as part of its legislative agenda.
This proposed “Best Life Alliance” legislation suggests adjustments to Minnesota’s disability waiver rate system, with a goal of updating wages for workers at these agencies to rates more in line with wages in other industries.
Agencies like RISE and MSS place their clients in jobs around the state, taking on a range of tasks, including positions at a major grocery store chain, cleaning, bagging groceries and stocking; at a salon chain keeping towels stocked, washing and folding capes; or at a senior-living facility, working in the dish and dining rooms and cleaning common areas.
Instead of keeping people with intellectual and physical disabilities hidden from society, real-world jobs help them to be more visible members of a community, Noren said.
“It really helps expand the community’s understanding of who we are,” she said of these jobs. Over the years, many employers have reported the benefits of these work arrangements, Noren added: “We hear time and time again how working with our clients changes people’s idea of work. It is good to know people who come to work really excited about having a job.”
She’s concerned that unless pay rates for support personnel are increased, job prospects for workers like Hanson are only going to get worse.
“Minnesota is a state where we’ve made such advances in services for people with disabilities in the larger community,” Noren said. With this employment crisis, she added, “We are going back to the day when disabled people weren’t seen at all. That’s not good. We need to make this a priority in Minnesota.”
While Hanson has other things that fill her life, work tends to sit at the center. When the jobs aren’t there and she has too many days at home, she explains, “I get bored. I have nothing to do. It’s bad for me.”
Noren said that too much downtime puts pressure on clients’ families and group homes: “This situation means that many people are at home without work 24 hours a day.” For people like Hanson, work provides entertainment, colleagues and distraction, she explained. Time at home can be tough: “For people who are unemployed and need supports to gain employment, being on a waiting list is really isolating.”
Among the RISE client base, this lack of work is not only affecting people’s mental health but is also making it difficult to maintain skills.
“If you think about someone who has a significant disability, when they are able to participate in work, they develop skills over time. Then COVID happens and they are not able to use those skills. Without work, they are losing the skills they’ve acquired,” Noren said.
Though her daughter doesn’t put it exactly this way, Lynn Hanson said she knows that not having a job she can rely on has been a real hardship for Christan. She hopes that something will happen soon, so she can make her way down RISE’s long waiting list for services.
“For a lot of these kids, all they have is their job,” she said. “They take pride in their work. They like going every day. They do a good job. It is so sad that they can’t just go to work.”