‘Our goal is to keep everyone working’

Published 2:16 pm Thursday, April 16, 2020

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By Mike Stoll, Austin Daily Herald


Cedar Valley Services and other day programs serving people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in Minnesota are under financial stress due to closures brought on by COVID-19, so much so that some are questioning if they will be able to reopen when the stay at home order is lifted.

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Despite the hardship, Cedar Valley Services Executive Director Richard Pavek is hoping to keep as many people employed as possible.

“We have not laid anybody off,” he said. “Some people have left because they lost their daycare or maybe they’re taking care of someone who is a high-risk person or working puts them at risk. We wanted them to be as safe as possible. We’ve adjusted the hours a bit from a business perspective, but our goal is to keep everyone working.”

Stacie Warner demonstrates one of her jobs through Cedar Valley Services earlier this year. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

Without emergency funding to cover fixed costs during closures, day service providers may not reopen, removing programs that have helped people thrive for four decades or more.

“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,” Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation President Julie Johnson said in a press release. “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, bringing a quality of life to tens of thousands through work opportunities, life enrichment and community integration.

Cedar Valley Services, which has branches in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna, provides habilitation and employment services for those with disabilities. It currently helps about 385 people.

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cedar Valley Services is unable to provide certain services, which affects the amount of funding it can receive. 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.

“We’re working and trying to keep everyone employed, but the revenue has dropped and we’re hurting because of that,” Pavek said. “We’re trying to develop a plan to survive this. We’re burning through our reserves, but we want to survive this because when things are up and running, we want to be ready to go. We don’t want to lose the contracts we’ve developed over the years.”

Not all of Cedar Valley Services’ programs have been stopped. The SMART public transportation service, which has been dubbed an essential service, is still in operation, though Pavek said ridership is down. SMART also received permission from the Minnesota Department of Transportation to deliver roughly 1,000 meals a day. Cedar Valley Services is also still providing laundry services for hospitals and nursing homes, custodial work, and limited capacity food service work at Riverland Community College’s campuses in Austin and Albert Lea.

“It allows us to keep people in their jobs, but at the same time our revenue is dropping because the services are down,” Pavek said.

Adding to the problem is being able to determine whether or not Cedar Valley Services is eligible for certain aid programs. For example, a lot of businesses have applied for the Paycheck Protection Program, but Cedar Valley Services is not eligible because it has too many people and a budget larger than those allowed to apply. It also does not qualify for the Family First Act.

“Being a private nonprofit, we’re a little different from other organizations,” Pavek said. “It’s hard to tell if we qualify for some of these programs.”

To alleviate the problem, groups like MOHR are working with the state Legislature and the Department of Human Services to ensure emergency funds are available during the service suspension period. Part of Senate Bill 3694, which is expected to come to a vote Wednesday, would provide retroactive retainer payments initially equal to 50 percent of past revenue for eligible services.

“We’ve contacted our legislative leaders and the governor’s office and we certainly support (Senate Bill 3694),” Pavek said. It will be a big help to help us survive. It’s really important for it to pass.”

A summary of the bill can be read at www.senate.mn/departments/scr/billsumm/summary_display_from_db.php?ls=91&id=7313.

But for now, Cedar Valley Services is doing whatever it can to keep operating.

“We’re vastly affected like everyone else, but when we get back to normal, we want to get people back to work,” Pavek said. “A lot of people we serve want to come back to work, but we want it to be a better situation first.”