Operators blame pandemic staff shortages for group home closures

A group of people inside a group home.
In this file photo, a group of people talk to each other inside a group home. Since the start of the year, a raft of Minnesota group homes serving nearly 60 people have closed, citing pandemic-related labor shortages.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General; file

In December last year, Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick of Rochester received notice from her adult sister's group home that it would be closing in early March.

"There's nowhere to go. She's going to have to live with mom," Kirkpatrick said.

It's a dramatic and relatively sudden shift for Kirkpatrick's family, just as it is for her sister who has resided in group homes since she was a toddler.

A profile photo of a city council member.
Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, a member of Rochester, Minn., City Council, says her family recently received notice that her sister's group home would close in March.
City of Rochester

Kirkpatrick’s sister has cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities, as well as a seizure disorder — conditions that also require constant vigilance to keep her safe.

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"Cognitively, she's about at the age of an 18-month-old, but socially, she functions more like a kindergartner,” said Kirkpatrick. “If you think about an 18-month-old, you're concerned about choking hazards. You want to keep them away from something hot. She can push buttons, you know, to help in the kitchen. Keep the knives away from her."

Kirkpatrick said that for the time being, her sister will live with her 76-year-old mother whose house can better accommodate her sister's needs.

Kirkpatrick's sister is not alone. Around the state, 59 people have been affected by group home closures just this year, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. These are facilities that often serve people living with disabilities that require specialized assistance and care.

As of last fall, there were 257 fewer beds in group homes than there were in 2020, according to the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota.

The accelerating rate of closures are driven by staffing shortages in the profession that predate the pandemic but have been made worse by it, say group home operators.

DHS commissioner testifies before lawmakers.
State Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead testifies before lawmakers about her job in December 2019.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP 2019

In the last quarter of 2021, more group homes closed than opened, signaling an unsustainable trend, said DHS Commissioner Jodi Harpstead.

"So far, we've had other providers with capacity who could take folks into their services and make sure they are their services continue uninterrupted. But [we] don't know how long that will last,” she said.

Severe staffing shortages

For the last 14 years, Kirkpatrick’s sister has been living in a group home operated by Cardinal of Minnesota, which has 55 locations around the state, many in southeast Minnesota.

Cardinal is among group home operators who are shuttering some of their facilities this year.

"We have been experiencing some pretty extreme staffing shortages for several years,” said Cardinal of Minnesota CEO Michelle Priggen. “But it certainly has been exacerbated in the last couple of years."

In early March, Priggen said Cardinal will close 10 locations in Olmstead and Winona counties — about 18 percent of the organization’s statewide operations. More than 20 people will be affected by these changes, with some staying in the Cardinal system and others working with alternative providers, Priggen said.

In a Minnesota state Senate hearing on the subject, Priggen said 50 staff left due to the company's COVID-19 vaccination mandate, while others left due to burnout or better paying jobs.

"We certainly have a commitment to high quality services and client safety,” she told lawmakers. “And that high workforce vacancy has really increased our risks and threats to being able to provide safe, happy and healthy homes."

Better pay

The vacancy rate for jobs in the group home profession is 30 percent compared to 20 percent prior to the pandemic, said Sue Schettle, CEO of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota.

About 70 percent of new hires leave the industry within a year.

"Many of our members were having severe staffing crisis before the pandemic happened” said Schettle. Distance learning and concerns about being protected against COVID at work accelerated departures early in the pandemic.

But in Schettle’s view, the biggest challenge is pay — averaging around $14 an hour. With employers competing for labor everywhere, many have left or turned down jobs in the field because they can make more elsewhere.

Wages should be between $20 to $25 an hour to be competitive, Schettle said. But increasing wages would require big changes to how Medicaid reimburses group homes for their services — and that takes legislative action.

"It really boils down to money,” she said. “It's — how do we create a profession and how do we pay them to have this position be something that is sought after?"