State Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, has been trying to convince lawmakers to invest nearly $1 million of state funds over the next two years in Minnesota Diversified Industries, Inc.

Earlier this week, she introduced her bill, House File 919 to the state’s Workforce and Business Development Committee held a public hearing on Sandstede’s legislation meant to raise funds to hire workers and provide career and problem-solving skills for people with disabilities.

MDI operates a plastic packaging facility in Hibbing, she said in the committee hearing via teleconference on Wednesday. MDI also has facilities in Grand Rapids, Cohasset and Minneapolis.

“I’ve long been a fan of MDI’s work to teach vital leadership skills to people with disabilities,” said Sandstede, a music teacher in Hibbing. “What MDI brings to the table in this regard is unparalleled in our region, giving people the skills not only to perform tasks as part of a workday but to understand their own strengths, learn alongside their co-workers, to collaborate as a team and take on new challenges.”

Last month, Peter McDermott announced his retirement after serving as MDI’s president and CEO for more than a decade, according to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. Under his leadership, the Twin Cities-based non-profit grew from 123 employees and $11 million in sales to 562 employees statewide and $33 million.

Eric Black, who spent 23 years at Cargill before working as a global director of marketing and technical sales at Univar Inc., has since become president and plans to step into the CEO role in April.

During the hearing this week, Black told committee members that 183 of the 562 current employees have disabilities. “That’s a significant ratio,” he said amid a powerpoint presentation. He went on to detail how all workers earn at least minimum wage and the wages and benefits paid $17.7 million. The St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation, he continued, found the “social return on investment” yielded $2.2 million.

Also in the hearing, Jeanne Eglinton, MDI’s director of employment services, told committee members the nonprofit's current funding at $100,000 per year “is not enough to cover the needed positions to support our employees.” They are being left with more than a $300,000 deficit and are asking for $450,000 annually to provide more in-depth support to their employees. More than 200 people have completed MDI’s career skills classes, with 80 percent reportedly becoming “better at problem-solving” and 88 percent showing “more responsibility for their actions,” she said, before showing a brief video showcasing a video featuring employees who talk about their challenges with a disability and experiences at their jobs.

The state invested $100,000 per year in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, down from the $450,000 investments in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. If passed, Sanstede’s new bill would allow the state to appropriate $450,000 in fiscal years 2022 and 2023.

“MDI is a valued asset on the Iron Range, providing manufacturing jobs for people with disabilities along with critical skills to help workers understand their own strengths, learn how to work together and collaborate as a team, and take on new challenges,” Sandstede said in an emailed statement. “I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time at MDI and have seen first-hand how they value their employees and help give them purpose and meaning. This organization has demonstrated their contributions to our community and state, and they are worthy of an increased investment from the Legislature.”

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