Service Enterprises, Inc. of Redwood Falls (SEI) has been serving people with disabilities in the region for decades. Through work opportunities, those people with disabilities have learned to become more independent and feel they are contributing to their communities.

The challenge for SEI, however, is in finding people who can work for them serving in various roles that help those with disabilities as they work in the community.

According to Karen Ramey, SEI program administrator, and Betty Stancer, business administrator, in Redwood Falls, the problem is a lack of funding. When one does not have money, it becomes very challenging to find people who are willing to work.

“We have had to turn away clients just because we don’t have people to work,” said Ramey.

Stancer added low wages are directly related to the reimbursement rates which are set by the state legislature.

“Those rates have not kept up with rising costs,” said Stancer.

In an effort to address the financial challenges entities like SEI are experiencing, a new proposal has been introduced at the capitol in St. Paul. 

Called the Best Life Alliance bill, the proposal would provide a 4 percent increase in the reimbursement rate provided to care programs like SEI effective July 1, 2017. The bill would also provide a 4 percent increase in 2018.

The bill was authored in the Senate by Sen. Gary Dahms (SF669) and Rep. Rod Hamilton (HF873), and according to Ramey and Stancer the proposals are still moving forward through the process.

According to Mike Burke, who serves as president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR), the state legislature needs to act this year to address what has become a pressing problem.

“It is estimated that there are 8,700 unfilled direct support positions in Minnesota right now, and that number is growing as pay rates continue to lag behind other industries,” said Burke in a recent press release. “It is hard to lose able, talented and passionate employees because they can earn more flipping burgers at a local fast-food shop.”

Burke added the programs and people statewide who help those with disabilities are a critical link in helping them get as far as they can in the working world. Those who are qualified to provide direct care are in short supply, said Ramey and Stancer, and even those who would work well in the local program are finding it more attractive to work elsewhere simply because the pay is better.

A program that in some cases is lagging dollars per hour behind other employers is only going to find it harder to get people to work for them unless that wage disparity is addressed. Programs like SEI are reimbursed through the Minnesota Department of Human Services to help with direct care, and helping improve wages is merely the tip of the iceberg for programs that need to find creative ways to use the funding they do receive just to keep the lights on.

What helps SEI stay afloat are the products and services it provides to the consuming public. Its Morgan brand popcorn and Jumpy Monkey coffee not only provide jobs for people with disabilities but, because it is sold throughout the region, the program is seeing some financial relief. Its Merry Maids program is also helping address funding challenges.

The Redwood Falls SEI program currently serves 68 clients across the Redwood area, and it has 15 direct staff working with those clients. It also has a waiting list of others who would like to be part of the program, but due to a lack of funding those individuals are being turned away.

Ramey said the program does not see a cost of living increase, adding the only way programs like it receive added dollars is by lobbying for them in St. Paul.

Both Stancer and Ramey agreed the 4 percent increase for the next two years would be a huge help for the local program, and they are hoping for good news by the end of the 2017 legislative session.