Executive Director Jo Bittner is seeking funding to stave off layoffs, but she's also very concerned about the impact of all this isolation on the DAC's clients/participants.

As our communities and decision-makers track the stresses and other negative impacts triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the same few subsets of our population are typically mentioned first and foremost. 

There are our kids, who have had the rest of their school years shelved and are doing distance learning at home. There are college students, their campuses shuttered and now learning entirely online through at least the summer. There are businesses ordered to close because they haven’t been deemed “essential” and all of the employees at those businesses who are out of work. There are other businesses that remain open, but with massive revenue losses due to a lack of customers, staff are being furloughed, taking pay reductions, or being laid off. There are those with autoimmune deficiencies and other pre-existing conditions that make them much more vulnerable to COVID-19 if they are infected. There are the elderly, frail and perhaps unwell already and isolated to a degree, who are even more alone during the conditions made necessary by the pandemic.

But what about the intellectually and developmentally disabled? The type of people who get out and about, constantly work on advancing their skills and do needed work in their communities? The kind of people that places like the Polk County Developmental Achievement Center exist to serve? With the Polk County DAC in Crookston deemed not essential and therefore closed since March 18, not only is DAC Executive Director Jo Bittner’s budget feeling the strain from being shut down and not only is she fearing potential staff layoffs in the near future, she’s also concerned that not only are the DAC’s clients suffering currently by being isolated where they live and not engaging with others, the DAC and their community, but that the suffering will continue post-pandemic because they will have regressed from the many accomplishments they’ve made and milestones they’ve reached over time.

“I worry about our clients and the impact this has on them,” Bittner tells the Times. “Many of them already have some mental health concerns; staying at home and not really understanding why has a huge negative impact on them. They are not able to connect with their friends here at the DAC, nor are they able to maintain their community and in-center jobs. They are now without face-to-face family contact and that hurts, not getting any hugs or face-to-face time.”

Bittner mentions one DAC participant who’s brother recently passed away and she’s grieving alone in her apartment. Using technology, she’s been able to communicate with her family, but Bittner said she really needs in-person contact, or just a hug from a loved one.

The Polk County DAC has staff in Crookston and East Grand Forks and at REM Group Homes. Bittner says she’s trying to put off layoffs as long as she can and so far has only had to reduce full-time hours from 40 a week to 32. She’s applied for a Payroll Protection Plan loan through the CARES Act, which is under the supervision of the Small Business Administration, through Bremer Bank in Crookston. If awarded, Bittner says that will allow to her cover payroll and benefits for eight weeks, along with some fixed costs like rent and utilities. She’d also be able to reinstate the 40-hour work week.

“I am afraid to lose excellent staff that we have invested time and training in,” Bittner continues. “The impact on them is huge to take a 20% reduction in pay, but more the most part, they are thrilled to still have a job. We like our team!”

More than half the Polk County DAC staff has shifted to working in group home settings to assist with residents’ added stresses, she adds.

Not able to reopen?

The Polk County DAC and other “day programs” that work with people with intellectual or developmental disabilities are part of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR). MOHR this week sent out an article detailing the degree of stress being put on the Polk County DAC and others like it across the state. Some are wondering if they’ll even be able to reopen once the pandemic fades and society returns to some semblance of normalcy.

“We simply cannot come back from this crisis with a decimated infrastructure for these crucial community disability services, where people with disabilities will not have access to innovative, individualized supports during the day,” said Julie Johnson, MOHR president. “We cannot turn back the clock on our progress. We must ensure day programs remain viable when we get through this pandemic.”

Johnson said Minnesota has worked for more than 40 years to move away from the institutional model of disability services into a thriving, community-based and person-centered array of supports and services. Minnesota has been a leader in this arena, when compared to other states, she noted, bringing a quality of life to tens of thousands through work opportunities, life enrichment and community integration. MOHR is prompting people to ask state legislators to pass “Disability Day and Employment Services Fixed Cost Relief” as soon as possible. A legislative proposal has been drafted and is being circulated by MOHR.

All of the day-service providers in Minnesota are nonprofits and only get paid when clients attend their programs. With services suspended, most have no revenue coming in and have little or no cash reserves to cover fixed costs while people with disabilities stay home. MOHR is working with the state Legislature and the Department of Human Services to ensure emergency funds are available during the service suspension period.

“Many of the people we serve need staff to get out in the community, attend events, take in a movie and do other things that many of us take for granted,” Johnson said. Day programs not only provide employment training and job support, but are bedrock to people’s social lives and interaction with wider society, she added.

While Bittner says she’s dipping into budget reserves to help the Polk County DAC get by, she stresses that the prospect of not being able to reopen “is not on my radar!”

“We will weather this storm and continue to be a resource for the 80 persons we currently serve,” she says.