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Vets home residents upset at program changes

Changes to the work therapy program at the Minnesota Veterans Home Hastings have some residents upset about cuts to their hours, but Veterans Administration officials say the changes are meant to allow more residents into the popular program.

The members of the Hastings Veterans Resident Advisory Council called attention to the changes recently, and said that for many who work through the program, it's their only source of income. VA officials, however, say they need to rein in spending across the board in the current fiscal year, which began a month ago.

The program

The work therapy program gives residents of the vets home minimum-wage jobs that range from in-house work, to some off the Hastings campus. Of the 176 residents at the Hastings vets home, about 109, or 61 percent, are in the program today.

Some of the jobs include assembling American Legion poppies, staffing the craft room and woodworking shop, cleaning the dining room after meals, washing dishes and staffing the canteen, a small snack shop. The VA also has a program in which veterans go to Fort Snelling National Cemetery to do grounds work.

Residents are allowed to work a maximum of 20 hours a week and make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Those who assemble poppies are paid six cents per poppy.

One vets home resident, who did not want to be identified by name, said the real benefit of the work therapy program isn't the money he and others makes from it, but being active and doing something they can take pride in.

"These guys are proud to do their jobs," he said.

Ted Margitan, a rehab counselor at the vets home, who runs the work therapy program, said the program helps residents develop work ethics, gives them a healthy activity to do and adds some structure to their lives. He's seen residents apply for jobs outside the vets home and use the work they did through the program as experience when applying.

The changes

Members of the Hastings Veterans Resident Advisory Council said that on July 21, they were informed some of their hours in the work therapy program would be cut back. Council members said most of the cuts were in the range of 20 to 25 percent, but some were as much as 50.

At the same time, the VA is putting more money into the program this year than it did last year, increasing the budget from about $161,000 to $179,000, or an increase of almost 11 percent. The hours residents will be allowed to work, however, are only increasing by .2 percent, going from 24,639 to 24,690. The disparity between those two numbers comes from an increase to the minimum wage that recently went into effect.

Hastings Veterans Home Administrator Charles Cox said with the coming of the new fiscal year, the program had to be tightened to make sure it's within its budget. He said the goal is to allow more residents access to the program, but no new residents have been added to date.

Cox said that won't happen until the end of the first quarter, when he can assess where the budget is at. He said the canteen, a snack shop run by residents through the work therapy program, is one variable in the equation. The amount of profit the canteen turns in the first quarter will have an effect on how many people can be added to the program, he said.

Members of the Hastings Veterans Resident Advisory Council said they welcome the idea of adding new people to the program, but question the strategy of cutting back on hours for people already in the program. They say a better way to go about it is to create new jobs within the program and add people that way.

One member of the council said when the July 21 announcement about the changes to the program were made, there was no mention about wanting to add new people to the program. VA officials said the original announcement included some incorrect information, and they plan to update residents soon on the changes.

The money lost by the residents isn't the issue for the advisory council, they say. Most residents make $100 or less every two weeks from their work therapy jobs. Members of the council said it's the therapy aspect of the program that they're worried about losing.

"This is a therapy program," one council member said. "It's no different from saying, 'We can only bandage half your leg because we're cutting back on bandages.'"

The council says the work therapy program is extremely valuable to residents, but is a drop in the bucket in the Hastings home's overall budget. They question some landscaping improvements and new furniture they've seen around the campus and say if there's money for those things, the VA should be able to keep the work therapy program fully funded.