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A state hiring program designed to reverse Minnesota's historically low rate of employment of people with disabilities in state government has fallen short of expectations amid reports of mismanagement and lack of coordination between agencies.

In October 2016, then-Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled Connect 700, a program that was hailed as an innovative way to give individuals with disabilities a greater role in state government by granting them early preference during the hiring process for hundreds of state jobs. The program enabled people to skip the normal, competitive interviewing process, provided they meet the minimum job requirements and could demonstrate their ability to perform the tasks by working up to 700 hours on the job.

But new data released this month by the Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) office shows that approximately 20% of individuals with disabilities who were approved to participate in the program were actually hired and slightly less than 12% are still employed in state government. All told, of the 1,510 certificates issued to people eligible for Connect 700 over the past three years, fewer than 200 people made it through the 700-hour probationary period and are still working in state jobs, MMB data shows.

"It's absolutely abysmal," said Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-Champlin, who called for improvements to the program at a state Senate committee hearing last week.

In interviews, nearly a dozen current and former state employees say the once-promising program has foundered because of poor leadership, and marginal to nonexistent training. Several hiring managers said they were never told about the program's requirements, such as regular check-ins with workers, and Connect 700 participants said their requests for basic accommodations for their disabilities were ignored or denied, making it impossible for them to succeed. Others described being treated like second-class employees and having to go through extra steps to prove their worth even when they met the job qualifications.

"Too many people are being set up to fail through this program," said Kenneth Rodgers, who helped design the Connect 700 program and is coordinator of disability programs at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). "People are being hired for all the right reasons. … But without the proper supports, they are falling by the wayside."

Officials at MMB, which oversees state hiring practices, defended the program and its performance, pointing out that its 12% hiring rate is three times that of the overall rate in state government for competitive jobs. They also pointed to significant gains in state employment of people with disabilities, an increase tied to the Connect 700 program. In the last fiscal year, 7.2% of state employees identified as having a disability. That is up from 4.7% in 2014, when Dayton issued an executive order directing state agencies to expand hiring of people with disabilities.

Kristin Batson, human resources systems director at MMB, said the Connect 700 program is still new and requires "more fine tuning," including expanded training for human resources managers. MMB is also working with disability advocacy groups to increase awareness of the program, she said. Still, the hiring rate shows the program is achieving its primary goal: To help level the playing field between job applicants with disabilities and those without them, she said.

"I think [Connect 700] is the most effective tool in our arsenal to increase our numbers" of state employees with disabilities, Batson said. "The design of the program is really beautiful."

Yet the performance of Connect 700 has varied across state government. State data show wide disparities in employment practices: Some agencies, such as MnDOT, routinely approve nearly all requests for accommodation by people with disabilities, while other agencies deny a third or more, according to MMB data.

Kristin Burgess, director of accessibility resources at Metropolitan State University, said the program "never lived up to its potential," because it was not rolled out consistently. Even now, three years after the program's launch, Burgess said she gets calls from hiring managers asking how Connect 700 works and who qualifies.

Andrea Imhoff, 33, a business systems analyst who is on the autism spectrum, recalls feeling elated when she was accepted into the Connect 700 program two years ago. For years, Imhoff struggled to compete for state jobs because of her disability, which made it difficult for her to perform well in traditional, face-to-face job interviews.

By contrast, the interview process for the Connect 700 program was more relaxed and conversational. Imhoff could talk freely about her disability, as well as the accommodations she would need to perform the work effectively. Soon after, she was offered the opportunity as a data analyst at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). Imhoff said she was promised access to a job coach, as well as a laptop to help with training.

But Imhoff said the promised accommodations never materialized. The resulting stress of trying to navigate a new work environment without support became too much to bear, and Imhoff resigned from the position for health reasons before she completed the 700 hours. "I was devastated," Imhoff said. "To be interacted with as if I was incompetent … took a huge toll on my health."

Bradford Teslow, 62, who has cognitive disabilities brought on by brain injuries, described his short experience with the Connect 700 program as "an emotional roller coaster."

There was the initial excitement of being accepted into the program and then being offered his first chance at a competitive job in 16 years.

However, Teslow said he was thrown into a new position at the DHS — sorting and delivering mail and organizing meeting packets — with little personalized training. Teslow said supervisors would itemize his daily job duties on paper, even though he stressed how he performed better with face-to-face conversations, he said. "I got minimal constructive feedback," Teslow said.

On a July morning in 2018, Teslow was told by a supervisor that he was being dismissed. No one explained why he was being let go, just halfway through the probationary program, he said.

"The state is missing out in a huge way," said Teslow, reflecting on the program. "People with disabilities have so much to offer … so long as we have the opportunity."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres