Lawmakers promise to probe allegations of a toxic workplace at the Hastings veterans home

Lawmakers in the Minnesota House vowed to investigate allegations from caregivers that the state Veterans Home in Hastings is a toxic workplace while they are also considering $78 million in state funding to replace the campus.

Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL- Coon Rapids, chair of the House veterans committee, said he will ask Larry Herke, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, about the allegations and possibly ask him to testify before the committee. Newton noted that a former worker at the Hastings veterans home had already contacted him.

“We have to look into it,” said Newton on Monday. “I want to meet with the commissioner first and get his take on it, see what he is doing. If he is attempting to resolve it then we should be hands off. If it is not being resolved we should have him talk to the committee.”

A dozen current and former caregivers at the Hasting veterans home described to the Pioneer Press what they say is a toxic workplace culture in the domiciliary program that includes harassment, retaliation and bullying of workers who raise safety and staffing concerns.

Caregivers and residents say the problems have led to an exodus of workers and present hazards for both veterans and staff.

Minnesota’s domiciliary program is home to about 200 of the state’s most vulnerable veterans. Many of the roughly 150 residents at the home in Hastings and 50 at a smaller facility in Minneapolis struggle with chronic medical conditions, mental health challenges and substance abuse problems.

$220 million project to replace Hastings facility

Two state officials who oversee the domiciliary program — administrator Mike Anderson and Doug Hughes, deputy commissioner of veterans health care for the state Department of Veterans Affairs — were before the House veterans committee Monday to testify in support of a request for $78 million to replace the Hastings campus.

That’s the state’s portion of a proposed $220 million project to replace the more than 100-year-old facility with the rest coming from the federal government. The Hastings facility was built around 1900 and served as a mental hospital before being used as a veterans home.

Lawmakers did not ask Anderson or Hughes about the allegations from caregivers about the workplace culture.

Before the hearing, both declined to discuss the claims with the Pioneer Press, citing an ongoing investigation.

“Not at this time,” Hughes said in response to a question about the allegations. “We’re working on it.”

A spokeswoman from the state Department of Veterans Affairs also said pending litigation and ongoing investigations prevented officials from discussing the allegations. She added that a January 2023 survey of residents gave the Hastings facility high marks.

As part of his testimony to the House veterans committee, Hughes noted that the state’s ongoing workforce shortage of health care workers was impacting the state Department of Veterans Affairs ability to provide health care.

“If we don’t have the health care workers, we can’t admit (veterans),” Hughes said.

‘They are very serious allegations’

But caregivers at the domiciliaries in Hastings and Minneapolis say state officials haven’t done enough to address the workplace culture that is driving employees away. They’ve raised their concerns to both Commissioner Herke and Gov. Tim Walz. So far, they say, no state officials have talked with them about their claims.

Rep. Shane Hudella, R-Hastings, who is the chief sponsor of the legislation to provide $78 million to replace the Hastings veterans home, agreed that caregivers’ claims needed to be investigated. He also said it should be considered a separate issue from the funding request to replace the Hastings campus.

“I think they are very serious allegations,” Hudella said. “I’m taking them very seriously.”

The funding request is part of a capital investment, or bonding, bill House lawmakers debated Monday. Rep. Fue Lee, DFL-Minneapolis, the chief sponsor of the legislation and the chair of the capital investment committee, said he trusts Rep. Newton’s committee will look into the allegations about the Hastings veterans home.

Sen. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, also has said the Senate veterans committee she chairs will look into the claims. In an interview, Murphy noted her past work to address staffing and other concerns at the Minneapolis veterans home.

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