Regional News in Review - March 2019

Employees with disabilities eye lost jobs in St. Cloud area

When appliance manufacturer Electrolux closes its St. Cloud plant by the end of this year, about 900 workers will lose their jobs. That includes more than 300 employees with disabilities who work for the company. The looming closure has Waite Park-based disability service provider WACOSA looking at what can be done. WACOSA provides jobs and training for people with barriers to employment.

David Williamsen has cerebral palsy. He is one of those employees. Most of his work through WACOSA has been at Electrolux. “This is the only job I’ve known, and I like it,” he said. “Please help us, because I want to do more work.”

“Electrolux is a very significant part of the work we do,” said WACOSA Executive Director Steve Howard said. His team has been busy brainstorming other work options for employees as the jobs start to disappear this year. Howard praised the workers as “amazing.”

The goal is to replace the jobs by getting other area businesses involved with a group of workers Howard said often get overlooked. “We are excited to partner with a business out there, or multiple businesses, that would serve their needs, and our work needs as well.”

This is the second major challenge for WACOSA in recent months. The nonprofit in fall 2018 took on the clients and programming from Waite Park’s Independence Center, Inc. (ICI). ICI ended its programming in the fall and took steps to dissolve after more than 40 years. WACOSA had already been a partner with ICI over the past decade, so the shift in services was something WACOSA was poised to handle in a transition process. (Source: KSTP-TV, WACOSA)

 

Two found guilty in fraud case

Two Minneapolis women were convicted in February of operating fraudulent personal care attendant agencies as part of the largest Medicaid fraud case in Minnesota history. Hennepin County District Judge Jay Quam found that Lillian Richardson, 54, and Bridgett Burrell, 56, defrauded the state’s Medicaid program of $7.7 million meant for disabled people who need help with daily living tasks, state Attorney General Keith Ellison said in a news release.

Richardson and Burrell were found guilty of one count each of racketeering and eight counts each of aiding and abetting theft by swindle of a value greater than $35,000.

“It’s shameful that these defendants illegally set up home care companies that were supposed to help people solely for the purpose of lining their own pockets,” Ellison said. “They took advantage of vulnerable people, sullied the honest work that hardworking personal care attendants do every day, and defrauded the people of Minnesota.”

In July 2017, then-Attorney General Lori Swanson announced that charges had been filed against seven people, including Richardson and Burrell, in relation to the complex Medicaid fraud scheme. All five of Richardson and Burrell’s co-defendants have since pleaded guilty. Six others have been charged. The case against Richardson and Burrell was the only one to go to trial.

Despite telling a court when she was first convicted of Medicaid fraud in 2012 that she had learned a lesson, Richardson then worked as an agent for five home care agencies enrolled in the Medicaid program. She disguised her identify by using names of family members, Ellison said. The agencies received more than $7.7 million from the state, often billing for services that were not provided. In some instances, agencies used the identities of people who did not even live in Minnesota. (Source: Star Tribune)

 

Man honored for bravery

An Eagle Lake man was honored for his bravery and quick-thinking when he helped a police officer who was being assaulted. The Mankato City Council in February presented Jacob Siem with the Award for Valor, one of the highest honors that can be given to a community member.

Siem, who was born with spinal bifida and uses a wheelchair, has no usable muscle below his knees. In October 2018 he was in downtown Mankato and saw a police officer trying to apprehend a man involved in a fight. When Siem saw the officer go down he had to act. “My brain just went into automatic mode, I think, more than anything,” he told KMSP-TV. Siem intervened and got the suspect in a headlock, using his upper body strength to constrain the suspect. That gave the officer enough time to call for back-up and eventually make an arrest.

During the City Council meeting officers emphasized how differently the incident could have played out if Siem hadn’t been there. “The accommodation was just a small piece of gratitude that we give him as a city to really thank him for protecting us so that we can do our job better,” Mankato Police Commander Jeremy Clifton said. Siem doesn’t consider himself a hero.

“Hopefully it’s a good lesson for people in general and their perceptions of people with disabilities. If anything, it would be great that it showed other people that disabled people are a lot more capable than necessarily given credit for,” he said. (Source: KMSP TV)

 

Disability claim can proceed

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in February that employees are able to sue separately under the state workers’ compensation law and the Minnesota Human Rights Act’s disability protection. The court overruled its own decision made 30 years earlier, which said the workers’ compensation provision barred employees from making both claims at once.

The affects a case brought by a former Minneapolis firefighter. Keith Daniel, 57, sued the city in 2015 for injuries he received when his deputy chief said he could no longer wear doctor-prescribed shoes because they violated the department’s policy on footwear. He injured his ankle and later his shoulder while climbing down a fire truck and went into early retirement the following year.

The city paid him about $125,000 to settle the workers’ compensation claim, but the discrimination ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court. Daniel’s attorney, Joshua R. Williams, said the court’s ruling was a win for both his client and for workers across the state.

“Prior to this case, Minnesota employers were allowed to discriminate against their employees based on an immutable characteristic, specifically a disability,” Williams said. “This decision really helps bring Minnesota into the 21st century when it comes to anti-discrimination jurisprudence.”

A jury will hear Daniel’s case in Hennepin County District Court. The Minneapolis City Attorney’s Office isn’t commenting on the specifics of the case. “I’m just glad he’s going to get that opportunity,” Williams said. “He’s just a real solid guy who loved being a firefighter.” (Source: Star Tribune)

 

App eyed to improve mobility

John Doan came to the United States as a child refugee from Vietnam, guided through a strange new land and culture by his mother and a doting older sibling. “He was my caregiver,” said Doan, recalling how older brother Roy “protected me from the bullies, taught me how to ride a bike, and when I was 16, he taught me how to drive a car.”

Roy Doan was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and dementia in his 30s. His brother watched helplessly as some of those same skills were taken from him. Roy Doan lives in a halfway house and struggles to use public transit. So, his younger brother is stepping in to help, preparing to launch the “MO” platform. The online app will connect vulnerable commuters to professional drivers.

“It’s what we call the kinder, gentler ride-service,” said Shoreview resident John Doan of Shoreview. He is working with the St. Paul company Mobility for All. “We found out there is a huge need – people who are not getting out because it’s too cold, and their life can be miserable. They’re not seeing people for days.”

Mobility 4 All walked away from a recent Shark Tank-style challenge with $125,000.

The goal is to quietly debut MO in the Twin Cities market with a soft launch in March and a virtual grand opening in May or June. If all goes well, he’s shooting to roll out MO in Phoenix by late 2019 or early 2020. (Source: Pioneer Press)

 

Farmers get assistive technology

In a course introducing them to careers in the agribusiness field, college students recently brainstormed ways to help aging and disabled farmers remain in their fields. Minnesota’s 110,000 farm operators were 55 years old on average, in a recent demographic study. That age is only expected to increase.

Minnesota State University’s Ag in the Modern Economy class studied the trend and has focused recent units on developing assistive technology to help farmers who want to prolong their careers.

“There’s definitely an older workforce,” said Shane Bowyer, class instructor and assistant professor of management at Mankato State. “So, it’s about how do we make new technology to help the farmers?”

A recent class brainstorming workshop started with a video call from Goodhue farmer Ryan Buck, past president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. Buck, paralyzed from the chest down since a 2008 snowmobile crash, outlined parts of his job that require help.

He isn’t able, for example, to hop out of a stalled tractor to inspect what’s wrong. The group discussed whether a drone could be used. Buck said he’d be open to trying it.

Other farmers shared their time with students. Lucas Arndt took the course in the past and returned to lend his expertise growing up on a farm near Owatonna.

After offering the students real-world examples of limitations he knows farmers face, he said he appreciates how the course highlights careers within the agricultural industry that people wouldn’t typically associate with farming.

“What this class teaches you is there’s so many avenues of lines of work that relate to agriculture, that can help agriculture, or that agriculture helps,” he said. “No matter what you do in life, there’s probably a connection to agriculture.” (Source: Free Press of Mankato)