The state program charged with integrating Minnesotans with disabilities into the mainstream workforce has quietly placed more than 1,000 people on indefinite waiting lists, the result of a surge in enrollments that could imperil new state efforts to expand disability hiring.

In addition, Minnesota's Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program has rationed services for hundreds of clients and could be forced to turn away new applicants as it struggles with a looming financial shortfall and new federal workforce mandates.

State officials have projected that, without millions of dollars in new funding, the program could reach capacity by late 2017 and then would be forced to cease providing services for new enrollees.

Those most affected would be young people with significant disabilities just out of high school, who are starting to transition into mainstream jobs, say vocational experts. Many would be left to fend for themselves in a state labor market regarded as unfriendly to people with disabilities, a population whose jobless rate is slightly more than twice that of the general population.

"Our credibility is at stake," said Kim Peck, the state's director of vocational rehabilitation services. "Our staff didn't sign up to put people on waiting lists."

Closing services for new enrollees, in Minnesota's only state-funded vocational program for people with disabilities, could also hamper new efforts by the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton to improve their integration into the broader community. An ambitious plan of integration, approved by a federal judge last year, calls for state agencies to move nearly 20,000 people with disabilities into the competitive labor force by mid-2020, while expanding vocational services for young people.

Attaining those goals will be difficult without a fully functional vocational program. Founded nearly a century ago, VR employs nearly 200 job counselors and placement specialists with deep connections to businesses across the state. Each year, it helps about 3,100 clients obtain jobs in the mainstream workforce, while providing thousands more with on-the-job skills training, assistive technology and other services.

'Only show in town'

Though little known outside government circles, the vocational rehabilitation program has long been viewed as cost effective. For every $1 in public money spent, participants earn $8.90 in wages, according to a state study that tracked 7,943 clients from 2003 to 2011. The federal government covers most of the cost, allocating nearly $4 for every $1 spent by the state.

"It's the only show in town," said Melva Radtke, coordinator at Autism Works, a Minneapolis nonprofit. "They serve a huge number of young people who, but for this service, would be sitting in their basements playing video games."

State Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, a longtime advocate of greater work options for people with disabilities, said closing services for new applicants would have "devastating" consequences for young people, and could damage the state's already moribund record on workforce integration of people with disabilities.

Only 11 percent of Minnesotans with developmental disabilities who received state services in 2014 worked in integrated jobs alongside people without disabilities — the sixth-lowest rate in the nation. The state estimates that 15,400 Minnesotans still work in cloistered workplaces, known as sheltered workshops, and other sites that pay workers less than minimum wage. Often, their wages amount to just pennies an hour.

"The program has long been the front doorway for thousands of young people to enter the regular workforce," Hoffman said. "Any move to close services would have repercussions for years and years to come."


Sam Hesla, 25, who has Down syndrome and sometimes has difficulty processing language, said it was VR that gave him the confidence to pursue a regular job after high school. A counselor gave him a one-on-one jobs assessment, identifying his strengths and ambitions, and determined that he would excel in the regular workforce with some extra training. The counselor then helped Hesla land a job at a fast-food restaurant.

Since then, Hesla has gone on to better work at Carbone's Pizza and Pub in south Minneapolis, where he does everything from delivering pizzas and rolling dough to serving drinks. "I love this place," Hesla said as he served customers on a recent evening. "It gives me a chance to meet lots of new people."

The experience also helped Hesla toward fulfilling a lifelong ambition to work in law enforcement. After completing an intensive training course, he was sworn in last year as a volunteer member of the Minneapolis Police Reserves, becoming one of the first reserve members in the nation with Down syndrome.

"The [VR] program really helped to open Sam's eyes to what was possible," said his mother, Jaimie Bennett, of Minneapolis.

But the agency's ability to serve future clients has been thrown into doubt by new obligations. A federal law that took effect in July requires younger individuals to go through a state vocational assessment before they are steered to a workshop at less than minimum wage. Vocational counselors have since fanned out across Minnesota to evaluate whether thousands of people in sheltered workshops could instead be working in the community. At the same time, Minnesota last year adopted an ambitious plan to enhance the lives of people with disabilities; that plan has put added pressure on county caseworkers and workshops to help more employees transition into the general workforce.

The resulting surge of referrals has forced the VR agency to ration services, helping those with the most significant disabilities. Hundreds more have been placed on waiting lists with no assurance they will ever get help. If current trends persist, the program would be forced to stop providing services to new participants as early as late 2017.

Peck, the state VR director, likened the program's dilemma to a household "that's been living check to check, and then something comes up that you don't expect." She added, "We do the projections, and we say, 'We're going to run out of money.' "

The last time VR had to turn away new enrollees because of funding constraints, in 2004, the repercussions lasted for years. Many county social workers and high schools grew reluctant to refer young people to the agency for fear they would face indefinite waits.

"Schools, families and providers had essentially written the program off," Peck said. "We had to work hard to re-establish our credibility."

David Johnson, a former vocational counselor and director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Community Integration, said the cuts to vocational services are a "human rights issue." The growing wait lists, he said, probably violate a landmark 1999 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Olmstead decision, which requires states to ensure that people live and work in the most integrated settings possible.

"It must be horribly painful for young people transitioning to the workforce to be told that, 'Oh, by the way, you won't be getting any services and we're putting you on a wait list,' " Johnson said.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres