for Local Government While Aiding People with Disabilities
Creative effort in Olmsted County gets document processing work done while enlarging employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities and other issues
Government at all levels is challenged by an enormous burden of record keeping, with a need to track citizens and residents, taxpayers and all of those who are involved in or are affected by government programs. This imposes substantial demands on counties and cities, as well as states and the federal government, but local government seeks to avoid building large bureaucracies to accomplish the work.
When Olmsted County's Corrections Department found that a backlog had developed in its records management, with the need to convert files from paper to computers, one county official drew on his own experience for the answer. After Community Services Director Paul Fleissner learned that work in the Corrections imaging area was falling behind, due to staff cuts, he thought of his many years of experience working with people with developmental disabilities and had an idea. Could this clear need for assistance open up employment opportunities for people with developmental disabilities?
He called in Wendy Hightshoe, the supervisor of the support unit, which includes data entry, and reviewed the idea with her and they decided to move ahead and see what might be possible. "Wendy put her heart and soul into it," said Fleissner. "She went ahead and made all the arrangements to make it happen."
And, happen it did. Today there are two individuals with developmental disabilities who are working at the county offices in Rochester, helping Corrections catch up with its digital imaging records activity. Hightshoe says the program began in February 2004 when Valerie Huemann and another person started tackling the files. "Basic requirements are that the individuals have some computer skills and reading ability, and are able to observe the rules of confidentiality with the records," she said.
While Huemann performed her assigned tasks admirably, the other individual didn't work out and left the project. That opened up an opportunity for Melissa Treichel.
"I remember when I first started I got really frustrated," said Treichel, who recalled Hightshoe coming down to visit her and asking if she could do it. She remembers asking if the machine could be made to go slower and being told that it already was at the lowest setting. "Then she thought of putting the files in three sheets at a time, and that was a lot better," said Treichel.
It didn't take long for the pace to pick up, both because of practice and from realigning the workstation. Treichel is the only person working in that setting who is left-handed, so some adjustments were made in the arrangements. She is now processing some 2,700 pages a week.
Carol Decklever, her immediate supervisor in the document processing area, said that by working together it was possible for this new approach to succeed. "It took some trial and error. Wendy and I didn't know what to expect, but we had someone come in and sit with her for a couple of days. We had to get this working," she explained, and that was the outcome.
Melissa's Olmsted County caseworker, Carol Volkmann, was confident that Melissa was capable of doing the job. "I knew this would be a good match," she said. Volkmann notes that Melissa had previously been in work situations, assisting at a nursing home and performing some clerical tasks at a sheltered workshop in Rochester. "This gave her an opportunity to gain new skills," Volkmann said
Project coordinator Hightshoe thinks the program should expand, and will, based on the experience they have had. "This has worked out very well for us, and we're trying to expand," she said. "There are several other areas that could benefit from such a program."
The program manager for Olmsted County's developmental disabilities unit, Robin Sommer, thinks that this is a "perfect niche" for some people with such disabilities and can provide a competitive advantage. The repetitive nature of the work can turn some people off, she said.
"You should pay people what they're worth," she said, but adds that in government "everyone's dollars are tight." All participants began at minimum wage, but both Treichel and Huemann received a modest increase in their hourly rate at year's end.
That was important for Treichel, who lives on her own in a one-bedroom apartment in Rochester, close enough to travel to and from work on her scooter when weather permits. She hopes to earn more as her computer skills and experience grow. The income is also important for Valerie Huemann, who lives with her parents in a nearby community. She is able to drive to work and is now taking some classes at Rochester Community and Technical College. On a typical day, Hightshoe says, Huemann "will get to the office, take out the work files and start with the digital imaging, all before anyone even knows she is there."
Huemann's case worker, Dawn Kyllo, says it's clear that "she comes from a hard working ethic, that she doesn't quit." She also credits Huemann's supervisors, Hightshoe and Decklever, for being so supportive of her.
Thinking about the experience of using people with developmental disabilities for work in digital imaging, Paul Fleissner reflects that "it didn't seem to be that big a leap." Given the way the project has gone in Corrections, he expects that this will take off within the county, perhaps leading to staff positions. Given the unemployment rate for people with disabilities and the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, population, others are likely to see the benefits that such efforts provide.