Lutheran Social Services closure means 50 layoffs, program losses in Grand Forks
Though some programs will continue, at least in the short term, staff are reaching out to other nonprofit and state organizations to find a proverbial home for clients and programs, while dealing with sadness that one long-serving employee says is “pretty hard to comprehend.”
About 50 employees of Lutheran Social Services who work in the Grand Forks region will be among those who are being laid off after Friday's announcement that LSS statewide is closing.
Now, the staff members who temporarily remain – some employees were laid off Friday and others are being transitioned out in the coming days – are working to move clients to other resource partners, all while processing their own feelings about the agency's decision. The majority of Grand Forks employees likely will be laid off by Feb. 1.
Less than a week after the surprise announcement, it is, according to Janell Regimbal, vice president of children's services, “pretty hard to comprehend.”
“Every day, I was able to get up and go to work at a place that mattered and a place that I love to be. That's a really difficult place to be right now, ” said Regimbal, who works in the Grand Forks office and has been with LSS for nearly 34 years. “When you think of letting go of that and wanting to continue the work, this isn't how any of us saw things ending.”
All told, according to a Jan. 15 news release , 283 full- and part-time staff and several long-term contractors will be impacted by the decision. The agency provided assistance to more than 24,000 people in the state in 2020. Regimbal, who will be among the layoffs, didn’t readily have client numbers for Grand Forks, as the staff member who could quickly pull those numbers has already been laid off.
According to Friday's news release, the closure and layoffs stem from financial difficulties that resulted from an expansion, from counseling and other services into affordable housing through LSS Housing, in 2009. Though some programs will continue, at least in the short term, staff members are reaching out to other nonprofit and state organizations to find a proverbial home for clients and programs.
“The housing affiliate has been draining the reserves of the larger agency, and that has hampered the ability to provide financial flexibility for the agency as a whole,” said Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota CEO Bob Otterson.
Otterson said his top priorities are the agency’s staff and clients, but there will be some “tough decisions” on what programs can be extended longer than others through what LSS is calling a "controlled liquidation plan." Otterson expressed praise for LSS staff and said he is concerned about them and the clients who need to find new service providers.
“What appears to be the windup of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota doesn't diminish in any way the invaluable care that our staff and our partners and our stakeholders have provided over the years for thousands of our most vulnerable neighbors,” Otterson said.
For now, some programs are set to temporarily continue in Grand Forks, including the Healthy Families program, which offers home visits for families with young children or people who are expecting children. The Abound Counseling program also will continue for a time, though the behavioral health program won’t be accepting new referrals. Youth jail diversion program Attendant Care also will continue, as will a program for unaccompanied refugee minors.
While those Grand Forks region programs will continue for a time, others will not, including programs for seniors, mental health programs and counseling for people who have been incarcerated and are returning to the community. The staff members who temporarily remain, Regimbal included, are spending their time reaching out to other agencies, including Northeast Human Service Center in Grand Forks, which operates through the North Dakota Department of Human Services, to accept clients, if not whole programs, that are set to close. Otterson said “stay tuned” on the possibility of LSS of Minnesota being able to accept clients from the region.
The challenges in finding new providers are many and include issues of credentialing, and whether a public or private provider can accept an increased workload. However, Regimbal said there is talk that LSSND staff members could transition to another provider, along with their clients. LSS played a large role in delivering human services across the state, and according to Regimbal, the need is great.
“There's no way to sugarcoat the impact that a large provider not being available anymore will have on a lot of different areas – early childhood, juvenile justice, all those kinds of things,” she said.
The housing units at the crux of the agency’s financial troubles will likely be turned over to a third party for operation, then sold to an outside group, Otterson said. He doesn't yet know whether that group will be a nonprofit or a developer. LSS Housing spent $16 million in 2009 to buy and operate 22 properties across the state for seniors, individuals and families, at the height of the oil boom when rents skyrocketed in oil producing counties. The group also manages another 14 properties in North Dakota.
Locally, LSS Housing runs residential properties in Mayville, Northwood, Lakota, Devils Lake and Grafton. Otterson said there is an exit plan in place for LSS Housing, but that plan needs to be balanced by the group’s obligation to the people who live there.
“For the residents, they should not experience any change in day-to-day living,” he said.