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DAC faces hiring shortage

Lake County DAC program coordinator Todd Fennern (right) helps consumer Mitch navigate a crowded room Tuesday. The DAC and facilities like it face a hiring crisis for direct support professionals as a result of low wages. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)1 / 2
Sara (left) and Cole pose for a photo Tuesday at the Lake County DAC. Advocacy groups in Minnesota are advocating a four percent increase the salaries of direct support professionals to help mitigate a hiring crisis. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)2 / 2

Todd Fennern is helping a man named Mitch at the Lake County Developmental Achievement Center in Two Harbors negotiate a crowded room where others are watching TV, painting or eating.

Fennern is a program coordinator at the DAC, helping the participants like Mitch, also called consumers, learn daily life skills, make judgement calls or supervise other tasks. For higher need consumers Fennern also helps some of the consumers eat, drink and with daily hygiene.

"There's a lot of need in alternative care to help people get through their day in a dignified way," Fennern said. "Everything we do here is documented and supported to make sure everything we do is for the best of each human being, and helping everyone achieve their goals."

Unfortunately, however, there is a hiring crisis at the DAC and all across Minnesota for positions like Fennern's and other direct support professionals (DSP). The DAC is a private, nonprofit licensed by the Minnesota Department of Human Services to provide day services and day training and habilitation for developmentally disabled adults. With an average wage of $12.32 per hour, the main reason for the problems attracting and retaining employees is the lack of competitive pay. The DSP pay rate is directly tied to state reimbursement rates set by lawmakers and the pay has not kept up with rising costs over the last decade, according to the Best Life Alliance, a coalition of Minnesota advocates lobbying legislators for a 4 percent increase in salary.

"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 Mike Burke, president of the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR). "It is hard to lose able, talented and passionate employees because they can earn more flipping burgers at a local fast-food shop."

The DAC was a member of MOHR until last year when they had dropped the membership fee because of costs related with the DAC's move late last summer from Knife River to Two Harbors. Michelle McDonald, executive director of the DAC, said she hopes the DAC can renew its membership now that the organization is settled and most of the costs of the move and remodeling the new Two Harbors building are behind it. Still, the DAC is currently recruiting for another program coordinator and with wages as they are, it's unlikely to find someone with experience.

Someone starting at the DAC with no experience still needs up to 60 hours of additional training before they can work independently with a consumer. McDonald said she and other administrative staff at the DAC are currently wearing multiple hats, completing their day-to-day administrative tasks and filling in the gaps when there aren't enough DSPs to work with consumers.

"The DAC is totally dependent on direct support professionals to function each day and we're contracted with Lake County to provide a certain level of service," McDonald said. "When we are without qualified staff, we are at a risk of not meeting that contract."

Fennern said there has a been a problem with recruiting and retaining DSPs throughout his 20 year career in the field. A wage increase would make the salaries of DSP more competitive with other low wage employers, but until there is a wage for DSPs that is above a subsistence level there will always be a shortage of qualified staff.

"Often people would rather work for us, but we'll lose them to someone who pays 50 cents an hour more," he said. "We don't all have the luxury of being altruistic and working in the field we love or want."

In addition, the shortage isn't limited to DSPs in centers like the DAC. Nursing homes and group homes are also facing shortages and their abilities to provide quality care is threatened as well. The services provided in these facilities are critical, not only to the enrichment and training of people with disabilities, it also helps keep those individuals safe. In a facility like the DAC, a consumer even slicing a loaf of bread without supervision could lead to stitches or worse.

"The level of work we're doing, we're in charge of the safety and well-being of people every day," Fennern said. "We have to make judgment calls and if we don't have people that are interested in the position, it can hurt our people in the program."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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