LUVERNE — District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, spent his Tuesday in a job completely new to him — working as a direct support professional with Rock County Opportunities, a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities.

Schomacker shadowed lead DSP David Vis from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., including client pickup, exercises, meal time, an outing around town and laundry services.

"The thing that keeps running through my head is the Chaos Theory," Schomacker said of his experience. The Chaos Theory is the idea that from an outside perspective, a scenario may look like anarchy, but as a participant, it's easier to see the organization and structure.

"Once you're in it, it does make sense," Schomacker said.

The state representative said that from the first client pickup, he realized that RCO serves a wide spectrum of needs, depending on the ability and personal interests of each client.

"Clients are respected and able to be productive," he said. Each client has the opportunity to build income and see the value of their contributions.

Clients are able to get high quality care because staff take the time to build relationships, he added.

Schomacker, who serves on the Health and Human Services finance and policy committees, noted that of the $14 billion Health and Human Services budget, 50% funds long-term care and disability services.

As Minnesota's population ages, there's increased focus at the Capitol on supporting long-term care facilities. However, Schomacker said, "I don't know that this area (disability services) is understood as well."

He added that experiencing how state policy affects constituents practically is a welcome asset as he looks toward the 2020 legislative session.

"Days like today help me see the big picture," he said.

For example, a couple of RCO clients voiced to Schomacker that they didn't have enough to do and wished there were more jobs available for them.

"It's feedback like that that's really helpful," Schomacker said. "We regulate and regulate and regulate until they can't do some of the things they could do five or 10 years ago." He believes state regulation should move in a less restrictive direction.

Schomacker enjoyed spending the day focusing on clients rather than on funding, a welcome change from his usual life as a state legislator.

Although Tuesday's visit didn't specifically address funding, RCO executive director Elizabeth Schear, who invited Schomacker to spend the day working as a DSP, hopes that the experience will lead to more funding.

"We value our DSPs incredibly," Schear said. "Joe's here to shed light on the fact that it's such an intense job."

Schear shared that between 2014 and 2019, she has hired 37 people, and only 12 of those still work at RCO. That's a 70% turnover rate.

In addition to the toll it takes on relationships between clients and staff, Schear noted the expense associated with hiring new employees so frequently. For every new hire, RCO must pay for a background study, a MnDOT physical and drug testing, among other requirements. Each new employee spends the first six weeks shadowing someone else, then six months of on-the-job training, including 60 to 90 hours of non-direct client training.

Current state funding, with a federal match, allows Schear to offer employees a $13.73 per hour starting wage, then work their way up to $15 per hour. She believes offering a livable wage and benefits would boost recruitment and retention, and hopes Schomacker's experience will lead to better funding for RCO.

"I really, really wanted to just raise public awareness," Schear said, adding that politicians in St. Paul don't know what it's like to be in her position.

"I really commend Joe for taking time out of his busy life," she said. Then, addressing Schomacker, "It shows that you care about all of your constituents — especially the people with disabilities, who are your constituents, too.

"It's easy to focus on the ones with the most money and the loudest voices — and we don't have either of those," she said.

Schomacker described his day as a DSP as "a worthwhile experience."

He was the only one of several politicians to accept Schear's invitation. Schear hopes that Schomacker's leadership will motivate others to make visits to the disability service centers in their districts, as well.