Pair of Senate Dems introduces bill to expand volunteer corps to battle coronavirus
Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) introduced legislation Monday that would drastically increase the volunteer forces in the United States and gear them almost entirely to fighting the coronavirus epidemic, including by recruiting recently evacuated Peace Corps volunteers.
The legislation would boost the number of AmeriCorps volunteers from 75,000 to 500,000, expanding the reach of a service that places volunteers in nonprofit and government efforts to battle homelessness, weatherize homes and assist in classrooms, among other projects.
Those additional volunteers would be tapped to help the country battle the pandemic, working with vulnerable communities on public health projects, including contact tracing to monitor the potential spread of COVID-19.
“It is not too late for President Trump to embrace America’s strong history of national service by mobilizing our people as a cornerstone of the whole-of-government response to the coronavirus pandemic,” Markey said in a statement.
“Americans stand ready and waiting to help in this pandemic response. Our legislation will make it easier to coordinate a national effort to mobilize our volunteer workforce programs to help those in need and ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are not left behind,” he added.
The legislation comes as unemployment claims have reached an all-time high and people are expected to face difficult job prospects and a sluggish economy once the outbreak subsides.
The bill would double the pay given to AmeriCorps volunteers from 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent and give certain groups such as veterans hiring priority.
Recently returned Peace Corps volunteers would also receive priority placement for the new positions, as all 7,300 were evacuated last month due to the outbreak.
“As the federal government encourages businesses to retain their employees during these difficult times, it should lead by example and do the same,” Van Hollen said.
“With expertise in everything from public health to supply chain logistics to food security programs, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other national service volunteers are uniquely equipped to help our country battle the coronavirus. We should be doing everything in our power to enlist these men and women – and others who are eager to volunteer – in these efforts,” he added.
The bill would offer other benefits to Peace Corps volunteers, extending post-service medical benefits for six months.
The legislation follows a similar letter from Van Hollen asking to ensure Peace Corps volunteers would be able to receive unemployment benefits expanded under the coronavirus stimulus package. Volunteers are typically unable to qualify for unemployment upon return, but Van Hollen and other lawmakers argued the evacuees should be eligible for this assistance given that they were suddenly unable to continue with their work.
The Peace Corps has said it will allow volunteers to return to their posts once the pandemic subsides, and the legislation from the two senators asks for a report from the agency that “details progress of the agency to offer re-enrollment of each evacuated Peace Corps volunteer and its plan to expeditiously return the roughly 7,300 volunteers abroad once the suspension of Peace Corps operations ends.”
Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association, said the legislation would “provide opportunities for evacuated Peace Corps volunteers to continue serving their country, and utilize the unique skills these volunteers possess and put to use when confronting challenging circumstances.”