In mid-March, Service Enterprises, Inc. (SEI) began to feel the impact of COVID-19.

According to Karin Ramey, SEI executive director, the statewide stay-at-home order meant the majority of the individuals with disabilities SEI supports were not coming to work.

For SEI and the industry as a whole, the impact was immediate, because those who serve this clientele are only able to bill for the days when those people are physically in attendance.

The number of people actually showing up at the building had decreased significantly.

However, SEI was able to provide some employment support for several individuals in the Redwood Falls and Marshall area whose work was deemed “essential” in the community. 

In fact, according to Ramey, the crew that staffs the Carris Health Redwood laundry department never stopped working at their jobs nor did SEI stop supporting them.

When the governor’s executive orders allowed those in manufacturing to return to work, SEI officials were hopeful that they would be able to have some individuals return to their jobs in the SEI facility.

“Our COVID preparedness and action plan was put in place, we had trained staff on new sanitizing procedures and we prepared our program space for smaller groups with the ability to provide appropriate distancing between workers,” added Ramey, “but then the department of human services (DHS) who licenses our facility, put the brakes on providers like us across the state, restricting individuals who live in congregate /residential group home settings from returning to their day program.”

For many of these individuals, “home” is a residential group home setting. Meanwhile, SEI’s Morgan Brand Popcorn products were flying off grocery store shelves.

“Along with our other sub-contract work orders that local manufacturing companies expect from us, our assembly work contracts still needed to be filled, so staff packaged popcorn and coffee products and assembled small parts for various business partners. Some of our long-time staff stepped out of their comfort zone and learned new skills, so they could keep working for SEI in areas other than their normal job duties, while other staff were laid off due to lack of clients,” Ramey explained.

For two months, SEI served 15 percent of its average caseload.

“We had no clients in our building, no buses or vans pulling up to our front door – the building was empty and quiet,” added Ramey. “We know there were providers in the region that shut down completely for several months, who had to lay off all of their staff for months and others that are on the brink or planning their permanent closure.”

In early June, DHS made a modification to providers that they could support individuals with disabilities in their buildings if they live independently or with family (those not in a group home settings) and only for a maximum of three hours per day.

SEI had a few individuals return to services and to their jobs, but officials knew this wouldn’t be enough to survive long-term.

“It’s been a heart-breaking four months – we miss our clients. Staff made efforts to call individuals at their homes to stay in touch and team meetings were held virtually. Staff piled in our SEI bus to visit individuals in their group homes, from a distance. Our clients are a second family to us and we genuinely miss them,” explained Ramey. “Personally, we’re grateful for some wonderful staff in the group homes in Redwood Falls; they continue to keep in touch with us and work with us as we wait to safely re-open.”

Lots of letters were sent and phone calls made to local legislative representatives for their continued support at a state level. SEI is also a member of the day provider association, Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR), which has worked tirelessly lobbying for avenues of relief funding for providers and to appeal to DHS to make further modifications to services.

According to Ramey, “there was a sudden change in events on July 13, when the DHS commission announced they were lifting the restriction to allow for individuals living in group homes to return to their day program providers if they desired, were deemed ‘not at risk’ and had the support of their team. We’re working with interdisciplinary teams now to arrange for those individuals who are wanting to return and able to follow these new COVID safety protocols. We’re excited to see our clients again, but we know we won’t see all like we did six months ago. We have capacity limitations on the numbers we can support in the building and restrictions on the length of time we can offer support, so our in-house programs will look different.”

Ramey added, day program providers are still waiting for some relief funding for these past four months – 35 other states requested waivers from the federal government to help disability support programs financially survive the shutdown. Minnesota DHS did not apply for these waivers.

“We’ve been here in the Redwood community for over 50 years. We just want to be here for the next generation who needs us and to be able to offer them an array of opportunities,” Ramey added.

- Submitted photo