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Author: Megan Kuneli

Bark’s Bytes #42 | Being BOLD

Published September 27, 2021

In mid-March of 2020 our services were shutdown by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and Department of Human Services (DHS) as part of Governor Walz’s peacetime emergency plan to mitigate the transmission of the Covid-19 virus. Despite the best efforts of families and residential providers, we quickly understood how detrimental it was to the mental, physical, and emotional health of clients to be isolated at home 24 hours a day with no end in sight. In mid-June we were permitted to begin serving a limited number of clients and felt compelled to serve as many as possible within the DHS restrictions.

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To manage the daily challenges of the pandemic it became necessary to have an expectation of how we were going to work towards resuming typical operations. To unify our management team of 18 professionals I offered the mantra of being BOLD which meant ~ Believe It, Own it, Lead it, and Do it and I will explain how this was used in our journey.

Believe it. Was the professional confidence that with a clear intention, sufficient resources, and a little good luck it was possible that each of us could contribute to a shared objective – in this case resuming typical services by 7/1/21.

Own it. With the intention known, each of us had to understand how the Covid-19 restrictions imposed on day programs by MDH and DHS could be met while maximizing the number of clients served. This required split shifts, using common space for workstations, and more frequent cleanings to name just a few adjustments.

Lead it. Perhaps the most difficult aspect was handling the frequent changes and obstacles with an attitude of “we can overcome” rather than “we are at the mercy of others”.

Do it. Can’t say it any better than we all had to step up and get busy doing what we could to serve more clients. It helped that every time a client returned to our program it was cause for a celebration.

I am pleased to report that on 7/12/21 we resumed typical operations serving 85% of the clients enrolled pre-pandemic and have had only one case of Covid-19 traced back to our program. We are working with a few business partners to bring our crews back to their operations and find new jobs for direct-hire clients that were displaced by the pandemic and should be back to full census in the near future.

I do not claim to be management guru and have no desire to go on a speaking circuit or write a book. Still, the BOLD mantra can be useful in coordinating a team’s intention for most challenges, securing each manager’s commitment, reinforcing that one can control their actions, and that any well-intended action is better than no action. Give it a try and I would be interested in any success stories.


Bark’s Bytes #41 | You

Published February 9, 2021

It took me nearly three months and I just finished reading the “Subminimum Wages: Impacts on the Civil Rights of People with Disabilities” 2020 Statutory Enforcement Report issued by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (CCR). Not only was it long at 349 pages and detailed with 1,320 footnotes; more than 9,700 public comments were submitted (far more than any other issue ever studied by the CCR) and is a great example of a predetermined partisan recommendation waiting for a report.

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This CCR had eight members with four Presidential and four Congressional appointments. Established as an independent, bipartisan, fact-finding federal agency, their mission is to inform the development of national civil rights policy and enhance enforcement of federal civil rights laws. They pursue this mission by studying alleged deprivations of voting rights and alleged discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice. It is their view that they play a vital role in advancing civil rights through objective and comprehensive investigation, research, and analysis on issues of fundamental concern to the federal government and the public. It is my view this was anything but an objective study and recommendation.

In retrospect, I should have begun reading the findings and recommendations beginning on page 241. I’ve learned that 2 of the Commissioner’s terms ended before the report was finalized and that 4 Democrats voted in favor of the following recommendation with 2 Republicans dissenting, “Congress should repeal Section 14(c) with a planned phase-out period to allow transition among service providers and people with disabilities to alternative service models prioritizing competitive integrated employment.” I understood their primary reasoning to be:

  1. The federal Department of Labor has repeatedly found providers operating with 14(c) certificates to be limiting people with disabilities participating in the program from realizing their full potential.

    In MN we have day programs that offer special minimum wage and center-based work as options for people with I/DD to better realize their earning potential. We have also led the effort to increase opportunities for people with I/DD to find and hold minimum wage jobs. Still, there are more than 7,000 people in our programs that prefer and need the 14(c) option. As one mother stated, it is “less-than-minimum wage or no job at all”: Furthermore, proponents of eliminating 14(c), seem to equate the value of a person with I/DD based on their ability to earn a minimum wage whereas nonprofit day programs value all the people we serve regardless of their hourly wage.
  1. It is alleged that providers operating with 14(c) certificates are able to turn substantial profits and returns for their corporate officers while paying workers with disabilities less than minimum wage; and that businesses who contract with these providers benefit from decreased labor and benefit costs.

    Day programs in MN are nonprofits and their audits and tax returns are public documents. Furthermore, in 2019 I conducted a study of nonprofit compensation in MN which confirmed that executives of day programs are not excessively compensated and, if done correctly, businesses that contract with us pay the same labor cost per unit they would pay if using a nondisabled workforce.
  1. People with I/DD who are currently earning subminimum wages under the 14(c) certificate are not categorically different in level of disability from people with I/DD currently working in minimum wage jobs.

    With more than 40 years of experience in disability services, I know this is a myth and there is a difference in work skills between people with I/DD working in the general workforce and those working for a special minimum wage. One Commissioner refuted this myth by stating ~ “If it were possible for a person working for subminimum wage to earn the full minimum wage ‘with a little support,’ don’t you think these devoted parents would have leapt at the opportunity”? This myth is simply propaganda the CCR needed to support their predetermined recommendation.
  1. Paying low wages to people with disabilities harms their economic potential, increasing the likelihood that they will remain reliant on state and federal support.

    In reality, people with I/DD eligible for state and federal support have chronic and lifelong disabilities that preclude most of them from ever being financially independent. To assert otherwise is to label most people with I/DD a failure for relying on state and federal support.
  1. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires increased integration of people with disabilities into the workplace and society and is facilitated by technological advancements that obviate any need for subminimum wage work.

    The ADA does not require employers to lower production standards – whether qualitative or quantitative – applied uniformly to employees with and without disabilities. Therefore, a person with a disability who is unable to perform the essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodation, is not a “qualified” individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA.

Typically I would offer some commentary that supports my position. Instead, I am going to list some of the most notable dissenting comments from CCR Commissioners Heriot and Kirsanow (sheltered workshops is a term that has been weaponized by opponents and is only used here because it was the term used by those I quote):

  • No one in his right mind would think that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—with its mere two days of fieldwork on this issue—has better insight than these mothers have into what is best for their sons. It’s absurd. Indeed, my colleagues on the Commission must know it’s absurd. Why else bury the fact that 98% of the commenters were in favor of 14(c)? These women know their sons are not going to be earning a competitive wage. They are not interested in chasing rainbows and unicorns. For their sons, it is a sheltered workshop at less-than-minimum wage or no job at all.

  • Even zealous advocates of terminating the so-called “subminimum wage program” admit that its elimination results in lost jobs. It doesn’t take a labor economist to tell you that the demand for unskilled labor of Down syndrome adults is not infinitely inelastic. If the price goes up, the number of jobs will go down. If we could raise the minimum wage without increasing unemployment, we’d have long ago set the minimum wage to $1,000,000 an hour and made everyone rich. But it just doesn’t work that way.

  • Generations ago it was more common for people to feel uncomfortable around the severely disabled. They wanted to keep disabled persons out of sight, because … well … disabled persons offended their sense of aesthetics. Today those who want to abolish sheltered workshops and Section 14(c) believe themselves to be a universe apart from those earlier generations. But they are the same. In both cases, it is all a matter of appearances … of what looks good. What is actually in the best interests of the disabled individuals doesn’t enter their minds.

  • This report stands out because it threatens to make the world worse for those least able to fend for themselves. The report and its findings and recommendations take the tone throughout that although some people have not yet caught up with the caravan of progress and realized that competitive integrated employment is the wave of the future, the evidence favors the superiority of this approach. This is wrong. The Commission received far more public comments from parents of individuals who tried working in mainstream environments and did not thrive there. The “story after story” consists almost exclusively of a few people who testified at the Commission’s public hearing, a tiny smattering of parents whose children transitioned away from a sheltered workshop, and some people in Vermont, most of whom never worked in a sheltered workshop. It is not until page 99 that the report divulges that 98% of the public comments submitted to the Commission support the continuation of 14(c).

  • It is also worth noting that the report found that employees with cognitive disabilities in Virginia and Arizona (which permit the payment of 14(c) wages) had the highest annual mean earnings every year since 2009. Vermont and Maine, which have ended 14(c), overall have the lowest annual mean earnings for employees with cognitive disabilities.

  • But we do not love these disabled people more than their parents, siblings, uncles and aunts do. We do not know the abilities and limitations of these disabled people as well as their family members do. In fact, we do not know these people at all. If it were possible for a person working for subminimum wage to earn the full minimum wage “with a little support,” don’t you think these devoted parents would have leapt at the opportunity? The truth is that these individuals are only able to make even the special minimum wage with a lot of support, not just a little support.

  • The report claims that Section 14(c) may violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This can quickly be disposed of. 14(c) does not treat people with disabilities more harshly than people without disabilities. If a person without a disability is not productive enough to warrant the minimum wage (imagine a teenager who does not have the skill of his older coworkers), they aren’t paid commensurate with their productivity. They are fired. 14(c) is an accommodation for people with disabilities. Instead of being fired, they are paid commensurate with their productivity.

  • In regard to Section 14(c) possibly violating the ADA, it is a well-established canon of statutory construction that Congress is presumed not to abrogate an existing law unless it does so explicitly. The ADA does not explicitly abrogate 14(c). If one needed any further evidence of this, simply look to the fact that bills have been introduced to abrogate 14(c). Further, the ADA only requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals. The EEOC’s guidelines for “reasonable accommodations” states: An employer does not have to eliminate an essential function, i.e., a fundamental duty of the position. This is because a person with a disability who is unable to perform the essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodation, is not a “qualified” individual with a disability within the meaning of the ADA.

  • Even if Olmstead is a correct interpretation of the ADA, it does not require integration at all costs. Rather, Justice Ginsburg wrote, placement of individuals in community setting may be required when “the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.” Nothing in this holding suggests that States are required to close sheltered workshops when such action is opposed by people with disabilities or their guardians, who represent their interests.

  • Our colleagues note in their findings and recommendations that there is bipartisan support for eliminating 14(c). True. They failed to note that there is also bipartisan support for maintaining 14(c). Rather, it is a matter of realism and trust. The realism lies in recognizing, as so many parents have, that there are some people whose disabilities mean that their life choices are limited. The trust lies in trusting that the parents and guardians of these individuals, who know them far better than we do, can decide whether a job in competitive integrated employment, a 14(c) job in an integrated environment, a sheltered workshop, or day activities are best for their loved ones.

My conclusion is that most objective readers of the CCR report would agree that the 14(c) certificate is a valued option for people with I/DD and their families. Why the CCR majority recommended it be phased-out can only be explained by political appearances and the convenient headline that everyone should at least make the minimum wage. We need to stop listening to the false choice between either earning a minimum wage or not because special minimum wages are based on the local prevailing wage that is always higher than the minimum wage. We need to ignore the false advocates like Jillian Nelson from the Autism Society of MN who want to take this choice away from people with I/DD and Andrea Zuber of The Arc of Minnesota who want us to chase rainbows and unicorns. To become a physician, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath that includes the promise of “do no harm.” There is absolutely no harm in the 14(c) option being available as an informed choice for people with I/DD and we need to hold them and their Boards accountable for allowing these nonprofits to be used as a platform to devalue and harm people with I/DD that earn a special minimum wage.

In his 09/29/2015 Olmstead ruling, the Honorable Judge Frank made some notable statements that I think support the protection of the 14(c) special minimum wage certificate. These include:

  1. “In approving the revised Olmstead Plan, the Court also takes this opportunity to respond to those who have expressed fears about the plan’s purported harmful effects. The Court has received numerous submissions from concerned community members, parents, and advocates expressing fears that the Olmstead Plan will lead to fewer choices and diminished respect for individuals who choose not to fully integrate into community-based settings. Many individuals with disabilities in this state value living and working alongside other individuals with disabilities in settings such as group homes and sheltered workshops.”
  2. “The Court emphasizes that the Olmstead decision is not about forcing integration upon individuals who choose otherwise or who would not be appropriately served in community settings.”
  3. “The goal of placing individuals with disabilities in the most integrated setting must be balanced against what is appropriate and desirable for the individual.”

Minnesotans should celebrate that their state supports 14(c) as an option for people with I/DD to make a wage based on their productivity that provides real solutions to hundreds of businesses in our local communities. Let us demand truth over appearance, choice versus bias, and family trust over professional platitudes. We must do what the CCR didn’t by trusting the facts, ignoring unsubstantiated and politically motivated allegations, and listening to those with I/DD and their families. For that to happen, YOU the person with I/DD, YOU the family member, and YOU the professional need to protect the 14(c) option in the State of Minnesota especially when they try to shame YOU into silence.


Report to the Community 2019-20

Published January 7, 2021

We’re proud to announce that Merrick, Inc.’s Report to the Community 2019-2020 is now available for your viewing pleasure and can be downloaded by clicking here. Readers will encounter the following in this year’s Report to the Community:

  • A Message from the Executive Director
  • A Summary of Our Programs
  • Volunteer, Business Partner, and Client Spotlights;
  • Merrick By the Numbers;
  • and more.

Download 2020 Report

Newtrax Wins 2020 VHEDC Community Partnership Award

Published November 5, 2020

We’re so proud of our non-profit partner Newtrax on receiving the 2020 Vadnais Heights Economic Development Corporation Community Partnership Award. Way to go, Mike Greenbaum, Scott Olson, and the rest of the Newtrax team!

Check out the article “A Different Sort of Meals on Wheels” written by the White Bear Press to learn more about the amazing things happening at NewTrax.

Bark’s Bytes #40 | Fishing on Lake Covidtogoma

Published August 12, 2020

John Wayne Barker with fish at lake

“Fishing for an answer” is not an uncommon phrase here in Minnesota and is certainly one way to describe what the Minnesota Organization for Habilitation and Rehabilitation (MOHR) has been doing since mid-March, with the support of 67 Senators and a few Representatives, in getting Covid-19 guidance from the Commissioner of DHS and emergency funding from the Governor. I recently went on a fishing trip with two-day program colleagues that gave me the opportunity to put the last 5 months into some perspective.

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The story takes place on Lake Covidtogama in Northern Minnesota. A place that is often referred to as “God’s Country” for its pristine water, solid shoreline, beautiful forest, and quality lifestyle. The two-day expedition was to catch some Lake Covidtogama “gold” otherwise known as clarity in how to accomplish our missions in serving people with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) despite bureaucratic irresponsibility (slot limit) and gubernatorial shirking (poop). One colleague has a cabin on Lake Covidtogama and was our fishing guide for the weekend. His name is Bill and I will call him B1. He has decades of experience with a very large boat (program) that has all the technology needed to fish in different depths and conditions. The other colleague is also a Bill and I will call him B2. He has decades of experience in a medium-size boat with all the gear needed to fish in many different lakes and rivers. Myself, I have 22 years of flyfishing experience wandering in small streams.

After talking to some localtors, one a very Able guide, about the fishing regulations, the first day started by trying to catch some “keepers.” All we saw that morning was a huge blip on the fishfinder screen that we dubbed the Fishioner along with a particular Gullernor that was perching on all the other boats. We made many attempts to catch the Fishioner knowing that with her “in hand” it would keep our boat afloat and also kept hoping for a visit from the Gullernor to make sure enough fuel was in our tank. After what seemed like 6 weeks of nibbling on our bait the Fishioner disappeared from the screen and the Gullernor only refueled other boats. We took a lunch break to discuss options, talk to some localtors and boatives, and gathered our collective resolve before heading to a bay known for catching keepers. I thought I had caught the first keeper of the day when suddenly the Fishioner snatched it off my hook. Still, we kept fishing and, although it seemed like weeks went by, B1 and B2 did eventually catch a few keepers. B1 even took us to a remote section of Lake Covidtogama but only B2 caught a keeper. While fishing B1 shared his concerns about having to reorganize his boat, B2 was frustrated that none of his gear was working, and I was just pissed at being skunked by the Fishioner. We called it a day when the Gullernor flew over and pooped on our boat. Back at the cabin we filleted our keepers knowing that it was not enough for a meal, cleaned the boat, and vowed to do MOHR.

With localtors and boatives cheering on the docks, the second day we headed for deeper water hoping to find some bigger fish. After 3 hours of no luck, we went back to the bay and caught a few keepers but were well below 50% of our limit before heading back to the cabin. We noted that at 2 p.m., on both days the Gullernor perched on a rock near us, flapped his wings mightily, screeched something we could not understand, and pooped on our boat as he flew away. We never did see the Gullernor again and guessed he was probably covering his beak while bargaining with some of his favorite boatives. Running out of time, and determined to save our boat, we headed for the deepest water that afternoon. It was almost dark when I hooked something big that we had not seen on the screen. It was powerful, cunning, and very evasive. Still, with B1 maneuvering the boat, B2 on the net, and a lot of support from the localtors we CAUGHT the Fishioner. The localtors and many of the boatives celebrated with us that, having been caught, the Fishioner could no longer avoid being clear on how we could resume our mission in serving people with I/DD and the Gullernor would have to refuel our tank. We were wrong. Even after being pinned down there was no way to avoid the slot limit and the Fishioner had to be released. Adding insult to injury, there was new poop on our boat. Discouraged, we went back to the dock. That night we shared a few adult beverages, were reassured by the localtors, and uplifted by comments from others on how satisfying, safe, healthy, and important our fleet of boats are to people with I/DD having a quality life. We left for home encouraged that with the ongoing support of most of the localtors and boatives, along with the many heart-wrenching stories about our fleet being overlooked by the Fishioner and Gullernor, MOHR would find a way to keep our boats afloat.

The story does have somewhat of a happy ending. MOHR went on a third fishing trip and, with pressure from all 67 localtors and all but 1 of the 130 boatives, got the Gullernor to refuel our fleet. It was too late for two boats that had already sunk and might not be enough for many boats seriously leaking. Still, it was a good day for hundreds of boats that have a better chance to operate. However, the Fishioner is lurking in the deep water and hard to catch; and we need to share how much our boats were missed when the 26,000 people we serve were in isolation so that the localtors and boatives dispute her claim that we are outdated models that need to be retired. Instead, she needs to leave them as an option on the dock for those that want pristine water, a solid shoreline, beautiful forests, and a quality lifestyle of their choice and add whatever new-fangled expensive toys they want to the marina. The people that use our boats have spoken and change is not what they want nor is it required by the dockmaster. Will the Fishioner continue to evade the issue and let a few misguided and outspoken critics sink the boats that 26,000 people with I/DD use to have their best life or use the Olmstead Plan to protect informed choice? Perhaps Judge Frank needs to go fishing?


Bark’s Bytes #39 | Smoke & Fire

Published January 7, 2020

In late 2019, it came to my attention that Arc Minnesota was actively building a coalition of stakeholders to develop a 2020 legislative plan to phase out the commensurate wage regulation, known as 14(c), which permits a special minimum wage. After hearing strong opposition from many stakeholders this plan has been shelved for the time being. Still, there are several efforts at the federal level to eliminate the 14(c) regulation, and the Minnesota Disability Services Division (DSD) is moving forward with its plan to redesign Day Training & Habilitation (DT&H) services and impose a 36-month limit on prevocational services (with a possible 12-month extension) for anyone enrolled after 12/31/20.

It is my view that this DSD plan will eliminate the center-based work option for adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities (I/DD) even if the 14(c) regulation is retained. To explain my reasoning I wrote a document entitled “Smoke & Fire” that is formatted in the style of a 2015 document entitled “Myths & Realities” written by the RTC on Community Living at the University of Minnesota. My hope is that a reader will better understand the issue if explained in a similar format and structure.

Both documents are attached as a pdf to this editorial and I suggest that the reader print both and read the same section of each before moving onto the next section. In this manner, the contrasting views may be clearer to the reader by the time they finish reading the documents.

At Merrick we have more than 200 clients that earned more than $750,000 last year through our 14(c) center-based work option who either can’t or don’t want to work in a competitive integrated work environment. It is my hope that others will strive to convince DHS to reconsider its DT&H redesign plan and proposed limit on prevocational services so that people with I/DD can make meaningful decisions about how to live, work, and interact with the community as promised in the Olmstead Plan.

2019 VHEDC Award Video – Merrick, Inc.

Published November 11, 2019

Merrick, Inc. was honored to be the recipient of the 2019 VHEDC Community Partnership Award, and looks forward to continuing to grow its partnerships across the Northeastern Twin Cities.

Self-Advocacy Video

Published November 8, 2019

Merrick, Inc. is licensed in the state of Minnesota to provide day programs and work options for 375 adults with disabilities. We choose to do more.

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