It is a common feature of Minnesota legislative sessions: press conferences by House and Senate members touting some issue or bill they favor. With the state currently sitting on a $7.75 billion budget surplus, many of those pronouncements this year have involved ways to spend that cash, offering a competition of sorts among needs and interests.
A press conference on a proposal to spend $322 million for retention and hiring bonuses for long-term care workers this week might have been another entry in that competition. The industry has struggled with an acute worker shortage, brought on by a now-familiar set of reasons: pandemic restrictions, competition for workers, low pay.
But a two-minute presentation by an advocate for people living with disabilities, Kurt Rutzen, delivered in a way that lawmakers could not, made it clear why not having enough long-term care workers — especially those doing in-home care — is a special situation.
“We are in dire, dire need of staff,” Rutzen said, describing how not having workers to help people get up, get bathed and get fed can cause anguish, anxiety and even death. “You guys, if we don’t care, let’s say as a state: ‘We don’t care about those people. Let’s let them go, let ’em die.’”
Rutzen reminded those present that everyone in that room got themselves up that morning, “I know I even did. But guys, there are folks who can’t, who are still out there, laying in bed because staff didn’t show up, they took another job. I want to challenge you to think about that, be in the front of your mind. Because that’s the reality.”
Rutzen lives with cerebral palsy and has been working on disability issues at the state and federal levels for two decades, and he was at the Capitol to challenge the state to do something about the worker shortage in long-term care settings. The industry estimates a the state currently needs 23,000 workers in assisted living settings, nursing homes and in-home care.
A proposal by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, and Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, would pay $1,000 retention bonuses to current homecare workers who remain on the job. It would also pay $1,500 hiring bonuses to new workers: $750 at hiring and $750 after five months and cover up to $1,500 in training and clothing costs.
Christina Kurschner, a care supervisor for Mt. Olivet Rolling Acres, which operates a variety of facilities and programs for those with disabilities, said she is often providing direct care because she doesn’t have enough staff, sometimes working 78-hour work weeks.
“The stress of the last year and a half has left its toll. We have 80 full-time positions open,” she said. The organization closed its respite program because it needed staff for its group homes.
“A lot of great people, great supervisors and other people in leadership have had it,” she said. “They’ve left. And when they leave they are not coming back. Every day that we wait is a day someone quits.”
In an interview after the press conference, Rutzen said he has worked for ARC, the state and national disabilities advocacy organizations and served on the group’s national board for eight years. He worked for Bethesda Lutheran Services for six years until last fall, when he was laid off. Among his roles there was to write a blog called Kurt’s Corner.
In 2012, Rutzen was one of five Minnesotans invited to a White House briefing on disability issues and has also worked for the Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration.
“I’ve worked all my life for persons with disabilities,” he said.
Staffing in home and long-term care has always been a challenge because the work is challenging and the pay has been low. “This is more dire than ever because everyone is hiring now and you can make more at McDonald’s without the responsibility,” he said.
An in-home care worker has to make sure medications are right and taken properly, lift people into bathtubs and feed them. “There are people laying in bed as we speak, and there’s a possibility they would die and that’s very sad,” Rutzen said.
Abeler, who chairs the Senate Human Services Reform Finance and Policy committee, said he has worked with Rutzen for most of his two decades in the Legislature. He described his comments on the long-term care bonuses “amazing,”
“I never know what Kurt’s going to say,” Abeler said. “And that’s a good thing.”