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The Southern Minnesota Rural Area Transit (SMART) bus service is among those that rely on workers from Cedar Valley Services. Cedar Valley and other nonprofit organizations that provide services for adults with disabilities have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. (APG file photo)

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on Minnesota’s adult daycare providers. Many are on the brink of financial ruin, and it's even worse for Le Sueur County Developmental Services, which announced that it would be shutting down permanently.

Since 1996, the nonprofit organization in Waterville has provided day services, transportation and job coaching to disabled adults in and outside of Le Sueur County to "foster independence and positive relationships with friends and family."

In March, Le Sueur County Developmental Services was forced to close under state restrictions related to COVID-19. Though regulations have eased, it hasn't been enough to allow the nonprofits to resume services. For the 52 people that rely on Le Sueur County Developmental Services, the nonprofit's closure threatens to have big impact. 

"We've had some of our individuals in our programs for years, so it's a very stressful time for them," said Le Sueur County Developmental Services Director Doug Scharfe. "They don't have any day programs to go to right now, and most of the day programs in the state of Minnesota are in the same situation we are. They're struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic."

With so many other developmental services organizations closed across Minnesota, many individuals that rely on these programs have no way to access them. Now, several local legislators are calling on the state to provide a lifeline.

In a June 8 letter, state Rep. Jeff Brand, DFL-St. Peter, joined representatives John Petersburg, R-Waseca, and Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, in asking Gov. Tim Walz to support legislation that would provide some $30 million in COVID-19 retention grants for service providers.

A bill to do just that was sponsored by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and passed by the Senate in the first special session by a unanimous vote. However, it lacked a companion bill in the House and subsequently died.

“(Our disability service providers) haven’t been taken care of as other businesses have been,” Petersburg said. “I think they just got missed in the legislation… certainly they qualify for help, but everything has to be appropriated and spent through the state.”

Disabled Americans have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Adult daycares were quick to close in March, which makes sense given that many disabled Americans may have health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to COVID.

However, while some disabled Americans do have access to government programs, others have a much more difficult time because they rely heavily on the money they make by working at organizations now closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the pandemic hit, funding that normally comes in from state and federal agencies to compensate has been lost. While a majority of states have sought waivers from the federal government to keep its dollars flowing during the closure, Minnesota has not.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services finally allowed adult day care centers to residents of group homes, who make up most of their clients. Previously, only individuals who live in private homes could receive services.

Still, Cedar Valley Services’s Rich Pavek said that many of its clients will not be returning, either because their health condition obviously makes it too much of a risk or because their family or caregivers opt not to send them back.

Pavek said that Cedar Valley has a rigorous COVID preparedness plan that is designed to reduce the risk of transmission. Under state regulations, clients can only participate in in-house programming for up to three hours a day, though the limit doesn't apply to jobs.

The region’s largest service provider, Cedar Valley has roughly 250 staff members and 350 clients, with offices in Albert Lea, Austin and Owatonna. Because of its size, Cedar Valley’s opportunity to access programs intended to aid small businesses has been limited.

Meanwhile, the organization doesn’t pay into the state unemployment system, so it must pay benefits out of its own pocket. Most staff have continued to come to work in order to fulfill contracts Cedar Valley has with local businesses.

Still, Pavek said that the organization’s reserves have left it better equipped to deal with the “rainy day” than smaller disability service providers. In addition, revenue from those existing business contracts has helped.

The region’s other major disability service provider, still standing, is Waseca-based Jobs Plus. Jobs Plus, Cedar Valley and formerly Le Sueur County Developmental Services were designed to help the disabled maximize their skills and talents.

While work formed the core of the services provided by all three local community organizations, it is just one part of a holistic approach to helping the disabled live fulfilling lives, along with socialization and community building activities.

Jobs Plus’s Katie Neegard said that she’s been in close contact with legislators on the topic. Without funding, she warned that programs providing essential services for adults with disabilities could face permanent closure.

“This is kind of like our lifeline,” she said. “If it doesn’t get approved, our programs will start closing, leaving hundreds of people without disability services.”

St. Peter's Brand said that the biggest roadblock for the legislation may be the state’s fiscal situation. With the economy reeling from COVID-related fallout, legislators watched a $1.5 billion projected surplus turn into a $2.5 billion deficit overnight.

Instead of looking to state funding, Brand said the Legislature may have to use funding from its CARES Act allocation. Regardless, he insisted that the funding be made a priority, arguing that saving providers now would provide immense benefit over the long term.

“As a DFLer, I feel like my job is to stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves, and I can’t think of anyone who fits that description more than people with disabilities,” he said. “$30 million might not go that far, but without that funding, I don’t know how they’re going to make it.”

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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