When Peggy Chilton got off the bus on Thursday afternoon, she was happy and laughing after spending one of her last days at Helena Industries working in the mail room.
Her sister and caretaker Casey Molloy, though, was full of emotions that ranged from gratitude to worry and outrage. That’s because Helena Industries is closing.
Helena Industries provides career development and workforce training services to over 900 people with disabilities in Montana. Opportunities include wood and textile working, working in the organization’s thrift store and recycling electronics.
On April 5, the Independent Record wrote a story after it obtained a letter notifying employees that Helena Industries would close April 13 and file for bankruptcy. Molloy was visiting her daughter in Arizona when she read the story on her phone.
“The alert came through that they were closing,” she said. “That was the first we’d heard any of this was happening.”
After deep cuts to the public health department were passed along to providers, Helena Industries said it would have to operate at a loss of $30,000 a month. By closing entirely on such short notice, the organization has blindsided some families; and case managers are scrambling to place clients in other community-based programs. In turn, providers like West Mont, are inundated with requests for placement. Some providers worry the cuts will push clients into higher levels of care, such as institutions.
On Thursday, a day before Helena Industries would close, Molloy still hadn’t been contacted by anyone from the organization and said she didn’t know of any families who had been contacted.
“None of us has received any communication from Helena Industries through all of this,” she said. “Not a letter, not a phone call, not even a form letter.”
While its various businesses provided some revenue, Helena Industries relied on funding from the federal and state government through Medicaid payments. Helena Industries Board Chair Andy Utick said recent state budget cuts were the last straw, but Helena Industries has been struggling for years. Cuts were made to budgets already slashed in the 2017 Legislature and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services ended its contracts for targeted case management and reduced the rates organizations are paid. Problems started in 2008, Utick said, when the state changed its funding formula for reimbursing providers to come into compliance with rules set by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The state hired a consultant to help change the rates; and while providers were involved in the process, Utick said the new rates were too low. Helena Industries was audited twice in the following years, and both times the state determined the rate paid for day services was not covering Helena Industries’ costs.
“The only program we’ve provided to the state that allowed us to keep going was that targeted case management,” Utick said. “When they decided to terminate the contract or reduce rates we could pay, we can’t make it.”
With the closing, 66 clients stand to lose their jobs, as do 35 hourly production employees, including sewers and janitors. Twenty-five staff positions and 26 case management positions will also be eliminated. Clients' cases will be transferred to the state.
“Over 150 private-sector jobs at Helena Industries will be lost,” Utick said. “These consumers have nowhere else to go, so they are going to be even more reliant on state and federal aid, thereby further aggravating the state’s budget problems.”
Jon Ebelt, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the department found out Helena Industries was closing late on April 5. It reached out to Helena Industries on Friday and started working to place clients, even in a short term situation.
"We wanted to take care of the immediacy of making sure that clients were safe come Monday," he said. "The next step is to identify long-term solutions."
Utick said the board considered filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would have allowed reorganization, but couldn’t find a way to do it.
“Nobody wanted to do this, but the board voted unanimously that we had to do it,” he said.
He said giving short notice to employees was practical for Helena Industries.
“Creditors start coming after you once you start to liquidate,” he said. “No one is going to give you any credit. It’s more a pragmatic matter.”
Utick said case managers were responsible for informing the families of their clients, but when he found out that they hadn’t been notified, he wasn't surprised.
Molloy, Peggy Chilton’s sister, said Helena Industries has gone through financial ups and downs in the past, but said their most recent financial struggle left families in the dark. Molloy, who served on the organization's board of directors as did both of her parents, said Helena Industries has given Chilton a meaningful existence. Now Molloy says she feels conflicted.
“I think it’s a story of two emotions. Gratitude from everything we got from Helena Industries and the way it’s been run and the way it’s been managed, but now it’s just outrage,” Molloy said. “I can’t believe they would do this to all of these clients and the community.”
Chilton is Helena Industries’ longest-served client. She was born with cerebral palsy in 1950, in a time where families often sent children with disabilities to institutions. But Chilton’s parents, Bob and Ruth, decided it wasn’t an option for them and so dedicated their lives to making sure Chilton felt purpose.
When Chilton graduated from Helena High at 22, she was in the district’s first special education class. Her father had been on the board of Easter Seals and established a recreation program for people with disabilities. He helped develop the Special Olympics in Montana and was a coach for years. But after graduation, there were limited opportunities in the community for people with disabilities.
“Peggy was always the guiding force for their energies,” Molloy said. “They wanted her to have an opportunity for her to do something meaningful. Peggy’s a real caregiver. She likes helping people.”
At the time, a group was starting to work on developing Helena Industries and Bob Chilton helped get it started.
“Peggy started in 1974 so it’s been 44 years. She’s the longest client to work at Helena Industries without leaving,” Molloy said. “It’s been so important to our family.”
Each morning Chilton gets picked up from Molloy’s house by Capital Transit and dropped off at Helena Industries. She has worked in the mailroom for her entire 44 years of employment. Stuffing envelopes has been her favorite part.
When there’s not work to do, clients have free time for activities and socializing. A former supervisor taught Chilton to knit, and it’s how she likes to spend her time.
When it gets cold out, Chilton and her sister bring bags of scarves to donate to God’s Love and other local places. They always keep extra scarves in the car, and Chilton hands them out to people on the street.
She gets dropped off at home in time for Molloy to get home from her teaching job.
Friday was Chilton’s last day at Helena Industries, but Molloy said she hasn’t grasped it yet.
“It’s not hit yet,” Molloy said. “For 44 years, she’s probably missed five days of work.”
Filling the void
Molloy is hurrying to find a placement for her sister with help her state caseworker. Chilton is going to Spokane this week to stay with another sister while Molloy takes meetings with other community providers. Molloy said she knows they are lucky to have a network of family support to care for Chilton while they figure out a more long-term plan.
"Taking her out to Spokane, I feel like I can breathe a little more,” she said. “Peggy’s going to be taken care of. There’s a lot that don’t have quite that support.”
The ripple effect of Helena Industries closing means greater strain on other organizations for services.
"We are very concerned about the closing of Helena Industries. It will ultimately lead to undue stress on an already underfunded system, and, after 40 years of advocating for people with disabilities, I am saddened that we are regressing, not progressing, to help our most vulnerable citizens," said Richard Saravalli, CEO of AWARE, an organization that helps those with disabilities live independently.
Ashleigh Heimbach, president of West Mont, said the organization is feeling the fallout of Helena Industries closing.
West Mont provides residential services and vocational training and has several employment opportunities for people with disabilities. West Mont had five residential clients who went to Helena Industries for a day program, and they will place those clients in their own vocational program. They adjusted their internal structure to take on 10 more clients across their programs despite having a high need for staff.
While the organization is fairly large, with 160 to 180 full-time employees, Heimbach said they consistently have 25 to 30 job openings.
“We have to make sure there’s adequate staff,” she said. “We definitely don’t want to take on any clients we can’t provide safe places for.”
Although the program is at its capacity now, Heimbach said the organization will continue to discuss ways it could safely take on more clients.
“I’m just hopeful we can find safe and meaningful work for clients that are displaced.”