Thousands of Minnesota seniors and people with disabilities who require help with daily living activities at home now have a place to go to find caregivers who can meet their needs.

After years of preparation, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) has launched the state's first online job portal that connects people who need assistance with tasks, such as bathing, dressing and preparing meals, with caregivers who are looking for work. State officials will roll out the new online job portal — Direct Support Connect — to the state's 140,000-person direct care workforce this summer and fall, with the hope of getting enough people to register for the website that it will become a reliable place for people to get help in their homes.

The new service, which will be announced Friday, is designed to reduce the daily frustrations many individuals with disabilities face in finding and keeping quality caregivers. All too often, people who are unable to get reliable aid have resorted to making desperate pleas for help on Facebook and other social media networks, only to receive scattershot responses that don't match their needs. The challenges of recruiting reliable care can be so daunting that people with significant physical disabilities can spend several hours a day just posting ads online, combing websites for help and interviewing possible candidates.

"This could really do miraculous things for the state's [home care] program," said Shawntel Harry, of east St. Paul, who has been a personal care attendant for 15 years. "If we can get the people who need care immediately connected to those who can provide it, then we could bring stability to people's lives."

The demand for a statewide service that would connect people to direct support workers has intensified over the past several years, amid a critical and deepening shortage of caregivers. The shortage has grown so acute that scores of people who could be living independently in their own homes or apartments are instead moving into sterile and restrictive nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, the Star Tribune reported in May. Others have been forced to go without care for hours or even days at a time, putting their health in jeopardy, say caregivers and their clients.

As of December, there were nearly 8,000 unfilled home health care jobs across the state — the most in at least 16 years, according to the state workforce agency.

"We are at a moment in time when we need to do everything we possibly can to bolster and support the direct care workforce," said DHS Assistant Commissioner Claire Wilson.

Eliminating guesswork

The idea for a statewide job portal for caregiving originated in 2013 as thousands of home care workers came together in one of the largest union-organizing drives in state history. About 26,000 personal care attendants seeking better wages and benefits joined the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Minnesota. Among the workers' demands was an online matching registry to address the struggles people face when trying to find quality care workers to bring into their homes. The creation of the registry was included in a two-year labor agreement negotiated between the union and the state last year.

"We will be encouraging workers in our union to utilize this website as part of our ongoing work to make sure every Minnesotan can get the quality care they need to stay in their home," said Corey Van Denburgh, home care worker and elected union vice president from Anoka.

The registry is designed to eliminate much of the guesswork and confusion in finding a caregiver. People seeking care can create a personal profile specifying the types of care they need, from simple tasks such as bathing and dressing to more complex needs such as wound care and medication assistance, as well as the days and times they need assistance. Care workers, in turn, can list their availability, training and work experience, as well as their flexibility to respond to short-term needs. State officials emphasized the job board is designed for Minnesotans who hire their own direct support workers, and people can still find help by going through a home care agency.

Harry, the attendant from east St. Paul, said the registry should "bring order to the chaos" of connecting people with home care workers. Harry said it's common for caregivers to spend hours searching for a new client and then discover upon visiting the home that schedules don't match or the person requires help with tasks that are beyond the caregiver's ability. In many cases, people feel their privacy has been invaded without good reason, and frustrated caregivers are driven to other professions that offer more stable schedules, she said.

"It is such a grueling process simply to find the right match, and build a relationship, that people just move on and do not get the help they need," Harry said. "Many people … are just one caregiver away from ending up in a hospital or a facility."

Participation is key

The success of the job board hinges on getting a critical mass of people to participate.

As of early July, about 300 caregivers and potential clients had registered on Direct Support Connect, though those numbers are expected to grow dramatically as the state and SEIU begin promoting the site through social media and direct mailings. About 142,000 people are registered as personal care attendants in Minnesota. However, only 44,000 provided actual care in the last fiscal year, which suggests there is a large pool of workers who could become more active, officials say.

"It's been chaotic trying to connect with workers," Wilson said. "This will give people more agency."

Francis Hall, a nurse and home caregiver from Aldrich, Minn., said she is looking forward to using the new job board to help find care for her 20-year-old son, August, who has spinocerebellar ataxia type 2, a debilitating neurodegenerative disease that erodes his ability to use his muscles. Hall said she currently works 16 hours a day, seven days a week, providing care for her son, who has gradually lost his ability to walk, eat, bathe and speak. Living in a small rural community, she said, she relies largely on word-of-mouth to find other home care aides, but many of them quit within a day after learning how much work it is.

"Sometimes it feels really lonely, that you're in your own little world and there's no one out there to help," Hall said of her struggle to find help. "But if enough people go on [the website], and told others that it existed, then it would go a long way toward alleviating the shortage."