by Jeff Hage
APG of East Central Minnesota
On a regular day at Options, Inc., early mornings are busy with clients visiting with friends and co-workers. The fireplace might be on and the sound of music fills the air.
At about 9:15 a.m., Options, Inc. might be a rowdy place as joyful clients prepare to start their work day.
But by 9:30 a.m., the Options, Inc. facility can be quite as a mouse, with clients heading to their work stations or heading out to job sites located in Big Lake and other parts of Sherburne County.
But on March 18, Options, Inc. went silent.
The COVID-19 virus stopped work at Options, Inc. in its tracks.
About 250 special needs employees had no job to head out to every day. More than 60 staff people are affected by the closure, as well.
For Big Lake’s sixth largest employer, that’s devastating.
As work dried up at Options, Inc., so did the organization’s funding source.
The Minnesota Department of Health, which funds Options, Inc., stopped funding the organization in March.
As restrictions regarding workplace rules are slowly being lifted, Options, Inc. administrators wait for the day that the clients can return to the Options, Inc. facility.
Return-to-work plans are in place. There are 20-plus vans ready to transport clients to and from work.
But unfortunately, the return of clients to Options, Inc. could be in jeopardy, says Brenda Geldert, executive director of Options, Inc.
That’s because no agency at the state level has authorized a return of funding to organizations such as Options, Inc.
“We have been without revenue since March 18,” Geldert said.
An effort to release funds to Options, Inc. and other providers of service to the state’s disabled Minnesotans has been undertaken by a group of lawmakers.
In a June 4 letter to Gov. Tim Walz and DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead, 34 state senators have urged Walz and Harpstead to “exhaust all options available under the authority DHS has been granted under Executive Order 20-11 and Executive Order 20-12 to provide short-term financial relief to disability service providers who are unable to open at this time.”
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, and Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo, signed the letter.
The senators also asked Walz and Harpstead to offer temporary financial support to personal care assistance providers. Individual PCAs are important front-line workers who have continued to serve vulnerable Minnesotans every day during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The disability community has been largely left out of the conversation during the pandemic, Geldert said.
“I believe many people think we are being taken care of and protected but the truth is quite the opposite,” she said.
“We’re concerned,” Geldert said. “There’s no end in sight.”