In the early weeks of 2020, when a mysterious new virus began making headlines, South St. Paul resident Steve Romenesko watched the news closely.
By early March, with many things still unknown about the rapidly-spreading coronavirus, it became apparent the infectious disease would prove more deadly for organ transplant recipients like Romenesko.
“Whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, we’re going to have to work from home just for my own safety,” Romenesko recalled explaining to his colleagues at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Today, Romenesko, 32, is continuing his work with students at the college through remote work accommodations.
He’s also among a diverse group of disabled and chronically ill Minnesotans fighting for remote work and other virtual access accommodations to continue during — and eventually, after — the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When set up the right way, I think we’re at a crossroads of a wonderful opportunity to allow the disabled community to be involved,” Romenesko said.
David Dively, the executive director of the Minnesota Council on Disability, said people with disabilities have sought teleworking capabilities for many years.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Minnesota Human Rights Act both broadly address issues of discrimination and workplace accomodations.
However, Dively said it’s been difficult over the years for people with disabilities to be granted teleworking capabilities out of necessity for their health.
“There was extreme hesitancy by supervisors and human resources managers,” he said, adding employers often raised concerns about whether or not they had the capacity to accommodate telework for a disabled employee.
Dively said the disability community hasn’t missed the irony of often being denied individual accommodations in the past, and now, during the pandemic, watching entire corporations switch to remote work.
Yet, he said, that’s how many issues have played out for decades.
“For some reason, the framing of it as a disability rights issue automatically makes it a harder thing to achieve and that shouldn’t be the case,” he said.
Nikki Villavicencio, a disability rights activist and Maplewood City Council Member, said policies that better serve people with disabilities also stand to benefit non-disabled people.
Villavicencio, 37, uses a powerchair and has limited movement in her hands and arms due a rare congenital joint condition called arthrogryposis.
“Technology, specifically, has been really vital to my independence as a person with a disability,” she said.
She’s spent years advocating for disabled Minnesotans in front of state lawmakers and said the pandemic helped move some disability-rights issues forward.
“We, in the general disability community, got a lot of wins this year,” she said.
One example is a federal law enacted last year that allows Minnesotans who receive SNAP benefits to use EBT cards to purchase groceries online.
“We live in Minnesota where most of the year it’s difficult for somebody like myself to go to the grocery store and it’s impossible when it’s 30 below zero,” Villavicencio said.
And, while she’d been working on the issue before the pandemic, the pandemic made it easier to catch the attention of lawmakers, she explained.
Villavicencio, who also chairs the Minnesota Council on Disability, said remote work and virtual accommodations helped level the playing field for people with disabilities involved with state and local government.
“We all had access to state government in the same way,” she said.
A wide range of disabilities carry protections under the ADA, including some individuals experiencing long-term effects from COVID-19.
Dively, an Eagan resident who himself is hard-of-hearing and grew up with Deaf parents, said the pandemic creates an opportunity to reshape public policy in a way that better serves people with disabilities.
“It is a pivotal moment for us and the work that we do,” Dively said.
Maintaining and expanding remote work opportunities and virtual accommodations is vital, said Romenesko, a two-time liver transplant recipient.
Romenesko, who has a progressive liver disease, underwent another life-changing procedure shortly before the onset of the pandemic; a colon removal surgery due to ulcerative colitis.
He said remote work has offered him additional time and space to adjust to life with an ostomy bag, and it also helps him balance the ups and downs of chronic illness.
“It’s been really nice just to have the comfort of my own home,” he said.
For people living with chronic illness, it’s not realistic to miss work every time you’re feeling unwell, Romenesko explained. That’s where remote work offers some individuals a path for better managing their health and careers.
Romenesko said there’s a lot of days he doesn’t feel well due to his chronic health conditions, but there’s less pressure to choose between going to work or tending to his health.
“It’s not a binary option anymore — and I think that’s really great,” he said.
Additionally, he’s been able to avoid other seasonal viruses that typically cause longer and more severe illness in immunosuppressed people like himself.
In the community, Romenesko serves on the South St. Paul Library Board. The group resumed in-person meetings, but he continues to join virtually and advocate for better accommodations.
Villavicencio, who is back to attending City Council meetings in-person, said she hopes lawmakers will look for new ways to allow officials the flexibility to join meetings virtually.
Under today’s laws, the ability to conduct virtual meetings is tied to local state of emergency declarations. In Maplewood, and across Minnesota, there’s no longer a local state of emergency.
Yet, a future with better access for disabled Minnesotans depends on policy-making with disabled people in mind, Villavicencio said.
“If we make our communities work for the most marginalized, it’s going to work for the majority as well,” she said.
Recently released 2020 Census data proves what many residents have known for years — population in the southwest metro is skyrocketing.
This is especially true in Scott and Carver counties, the single-two fastest-growing counties in the state.
And, as populations have increased, the counties have experienced both triumphs and growing pains.
When Suzie Misel first started working for Scott and Carver County’s Community Action Partnership more than 10 years ago, she remembers far more corn fields and fewer Walmarts and Targets. There were apartments (plenty of them) you could rent for less than 700 bucks a month. There wasn’t as much diversity. You didn’t hear much of people experiencing homelessness.
Minnesota Senior Demographer Eric Guthrie said the expansion of the counties is a continuation of a larger pattern he’s noticed across the state. The pattern is a migration from the state’s rural areas towards the more “urban” cities of the state’s suburbs, like Chaska or Shakopee.
About 78% of the state’s population growth over the last decade was in the Twin Cities metro.
But of that growth, Scott and Carver top the cake.
“The first ring in Scott and Carver, closest to the core of the Twin Cities area, those areas have grown the most,” Guthrie said.
Carver County, which sits at 106,922 people, grew by 17.4%. Scott County grew by 16.2% and houses 150,928 residents.
There has also been an increase in diversity to the area. In 2010, Carver County was 88.3% white alone (meaning not Hispanic or Latino). Now, Carver County is 85.5% white alone.
However, diversity in Scott and Carver counties hasn’t quite caught up to the percentage at which diversity in the state as a whole is growing. Minnesota was 83.3% white alone in 2010, and now it’s 76.3% white alone.
That didn’t surprise Guthrie, who said the majority of that growth occurs in the most densely-populated areas of the state, like St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“Proximity to (the cities) is why we’re seeing the increases in diversity to begin with,” Guthrie said.
Scott and Carver County officials have long anticipated the migration towards the suburbs.
A 90-page housing blueprint created by the Scott County Association for Leadership and Efficiency, or SCALE, gives Scott County residents options for safe, stable and affordable homes. The blueprint outlines the organization’s top three goals for the future of Scott County’s housing: the preservation of housing stock, a balanced supply of housing options and accessible community design in residential developments.
Housing is a major issue that arose in the last decade. That’s in part due to the population growth, and in part due to the housing shortage in general right now, Misel said.
Fred Corrigan, co-chair of the Housing Committee for Scott County’s Live, Learn, Earn initiative within SCALE, told the newspaper earlier this summer that housing, specifically for seniors, has become an increasing concern for the area.
In Scott County, for example, 17% of residents are renters, according to the housing blueprint. The average household income of those renters decreased by 1%, while their rent prices increased by 21%.
“There are all kinds of problems that can arise (when populations grow like this),” Guthrie said. “School capacity, access to transportation, housing.”
A growing population means growing needs. Misel, who has spent the past 10 years trying to figure out how to manage those needs, said the community as a whole has stepped up to address rising concerns related to housing, mental health, food insecurity, and other needs.
“The food shelf has provided much fresher foods. Now we’re getting produce, milk, all those kinds of things,” Misel said.
Live, Learn, Earn is working on getting 50% of the people who live in Scott County to also work in the community.
Launch Ministry in Chaska exists to assist young adults in crisis. Esperanza serves kids and families through food drives, summer camps and community resources. Guild provides mental health care and stable housing for people in the community who need it. Many of those organizations did not exist, or did not have the same presence, as they did in 2010.
“We’re better at counting the people who are experiencing homelessness, too,” Misel said. “We’ve come a long way in learning how to serve the homeless population.”
When Misel first started working at the CAP Agency, there were six staff members in the housing department. Now, there are 12.
While Guthrie said he doesn’t have a crystal ball, the work-from-home culture brought on from the pandemic may push even more people to the suburbs in the next decade.
“People might start to realize that the communities offering more amenities are becoming more attractive,” Guthrie said.