Legislative work left undone risks safety of vulnerable Minnesotans

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While MAPE leaders were pleased to see a bipartisan agreement reached on police reform, union leaders expressed disappointment that legislators failed to pass deficiency spending requests of $11.7 million to the Department of Corrections and $25 million to the Department of Human Services’ Direct Care and Treatment program.

“We now ask legislators to turn their attention to the safety of thousands of vulnerable Minnesotans by passing deficiency funding for the Corrections Dept. and direct care and treatment programs. We’re also asking lawmakers to ensure that there aren’t cuts to personnel while the politics play out,” MAPE President Megan Dayton said.

MAPE was gratified the House passed the deficiency fund requests during last month’s special session but disappointed both chambers couldn’t come to agreement on the legislation this session.

The Dept. of Corrections (DOC) has recently begun laying off employees including those in safety administration, health services and other programs to cope with budget deficits associated with the pandemic.    

“Here at St. Cloud, we’re in the middle of a COVID-19 outbreak, as are several other correctional facilities. DOC is facing more layoffs. We’ve been coming to work and putting our lives on the line and the Legislature didn’t support us. We need to continue programming, yet they can’t fund us,” Local 1702 President Seal Dwyer said. Dwyer is a clinical program therapist at the correctional facility in St. Cloud.

“I recently met with two clients who are COVID-19 positive. We are being asked to endanger our lives and at the same time our jobs are being cut. We need action from our elected leaders,” Dwyer added.

Earlier this year, the Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) released a Safety in State Correctional Facilities report. The report found that several conditions reduce safety in state prisons, including persistent staffing shortages, heavy overtime use, suspensions of prisoner activities, unprofessional workplace relationships, limited oversight and outdated infrastructure.

“The inaction of the legislature has put public safety at risk,” Jessica Raptis, Region 11 Director and DOC senior program administrator said. “We want offenders to have access to therapeutic programs so they can learn skills to transition back to the community. The state of Minnesota hasn’t done enough to follow through on the OLA report. We have to address what was found in the report; working conditions are not safe and reducing staffing will only make things worse.”

The Dept. of Human Services’ Direct Care and Treatment (DCT) division provides residential and treatment programs serving people with mental illness, developmental disabilities and chemical dependency. MAPE supports legislation to cover $25 million deficiency primarily in the community-based division. 

“It is appalling to me that the Legislature, during a pandemic no less, did not prioritize the state workforce who provide direct care and treatment to thousands of vulnerable Minnesotans,” said MAPE Secretary Lynn Butcher, who also serves as a state program administrator at St. Peter Regional Treatment Center. “If we don’t get the deficiency funding, entire programs providing mental health services, addiction services and supports for Minnesotans with disabilities will end, and they will be left to fend for themselves.”

DCT Community Based Services provide care to individuals with complex needs like mental health, and age-related conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Private providers refuse to care for these individuals because the reimbursement from counties is insufficient to meet their needs. Minnesota State Operated Community Services receives the same reimbursement from counties but cannot turn away caring for these safety net individuals regardless of the cost of caring for them. These individuals rely on the state for care because there is no one else to provide it.

“COVID-19 is in some of our facilities, so employees are working in dangerous conditions and are still providing the best care they can. Often they are the only family these folks have. They are courageous and caring employees,” Butcher said.

The uncertainty felt about the future of some of these programs has been heightened as employees are told they need to wait another 23 days until another special session could be called. But MAPE members feel they shouldn’t have to wait.

“Gov. Walz doesn’t have to wait until mid-August to call another special session – he could call legislators back to the Capitol sooner than that. The safety of thousands of vulnerable Minnesotans depends on quick action,” Dayton said.