LINCOLN — The young man worked at a veterinary clinic until his family moved to a new community. The young woman cleaned at a local restaurant before she had to move across town and could no longer get to her job.

Their developmental disabilities made it hard to find work in their new settings.

Vocational rehabilitation services could have helped them land new jobs and learn the ropes, while helping their new employers understand their abilities and needs.

Instead, the two are among more than 3,000 adults with disabilities on a waiting list for services from Nebraska VR, a division of the State Department of Education.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln, who works as executive director of the Nebraska Association of Service Providers, recounted their stories. She said both now spend their days in a sheltered workshop, a work center for disabled people.

“Individuals who could be successful, contributing, employed members of our community are not receiving that opportunity,” she said.

State vocational rehabilitation officials started the waiting list in December 2017, when the agency began limiting new clients to those with the most significant disabilities. On April 23, 2018, the agency shut off all new clients.

Lindy Foley, director of Nebraska VR, said the agency continued working with people who already had a plan for services. The agency still can step in when people have jobs but need short-term help to keep them, such as providing hearing aids for someone who has developed hearing loss.

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But other people can be served only if an existing client finishes services or drops out, she said.

By mid-June, the waiting list had grown to 3,183 people, even after about 200 got services last fall. At the end of June, another 300 were to be offered services.

The situation leaves people with disabilities on their own to find work, if they can. Even with Nebraska’s tight labor market, Kathy Hoell, executive director of the Nebraska Statewide Independent Living Council, said that finding employment remains difficult for people with disabilities.

“It’s frustrating when the people who are supposed to help you aren’t there,” she said.

Foley said a convergence of several factors forced vocational rehabilitation officials to adopt budget-tightening measures.

First, a federal law that took effect in 2016 required vocational rehabilitation agencies to dedicate 15% of their funding for preemployment transition services for students with disabilities. The requirement left about $2.4 million less each year to serve adults.

Then federal officials sent Nebraska much less than expected of annual funds reallotted from other states. Officials sent the bulk of those reallotment dollars to Texas, as it struggled to recover from Hurricane Harvey.

As a result, Nebraska’s chief source of funding, federal Title I grants, dropped to $15.8 million in fiscal year 2017, down from $17.1 million in fiscal year 2015.

The problem was compounded by a 2017 state decision to move about $1.7 million from developmental disability services into vocational rehabilitation, with the goal of boosting federal match money. The move meant more people turning to Nebraska VR for employment services at a time when funding decreased.

Money carried over from previous years helped fill the gap for a while. But as that money dwindled and the budget got tighter, the agency turned to the so-called “order of selection” to limit intakes. In addition, the agency put a freeze on hiring. Currently, 21% of positions are vacant.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” Foley said.

This year brought another fiscal twist.

Under federal regulations, states must maintain their level of funding for vocational rehabilitation or face a penalty, Foley said. Using the carryover money temporarily boosted the state’s funding level. Now Nebraska faces the possibility of losing some federal dollars for not maintaining that amount of funding.

To help the situation, Nebraska VR officials sought a $2.4 million annual increase in state funding for the two-year budget period ending June 30, 2021. The Legislature approved a $1.2 million annual increase.

Bolz, meanwhile, argued that developmentally disabled people on the waiting list should be able to get employment services paid for by developmental disability services funds. That group makes up about a quarter of the VR waiting list.

Currently, they cannot get help either way. Developmental disability funds stopped paying for employment services after the 2017 funding shift.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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