Senate Bill Boosts National Service Vs. COVID-19

Legislation to mobilize federally-funded public service volunteers in the fight against the coronavirus, such as AmeriCorps members, was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The Undertaking National Initiatives to Tackle Epidemic Act (UNITE Act) would expand authorization of volunteer opportunities within AmeriCorps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and directs them to prioritize projects related to the pandemic to enhance the response on the frontlines of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

The legislation focuses on existing workforce programs, such as AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA, and FEMA CORE to be fully mobilized to assist vulnerable Americans — including the food-insecure, elderly, and homeless — during the pandemic. The bill would also ensure that Peace Corps volunteers, whose service involuntarily ended in March due to the pandemic, will receive benefits and priority placement in these domestic programs so they can continue to serve.

The bill will be given a number and referred to a committee. It will go to either the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions where Markey is a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations. It is not scored so the cost was not immediately available.

A Senate staffer told The NonProfit Times that talks are underway for companion legislation in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Markey and Van Hollen will work the halls for co-sponsors in the Senate.

“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,” said Markey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“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,” Markey said via a statement.

“Over 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers were recalled from their positions abroad and then left in the cold when they returned home,” Van Hollen said via a statement. 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.”

The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has received $73.4 million of increased funding during the past three federal budget cycles. The current CNCS budget is $1.1 billion.

Elements of the UNITE Act also would:

* Require the CNCS to prioritize activities related to the coronavirus and to increase recruitment of AmeriCorps volunteers to 500,000 (approximately 75,000 currently serve). Additionally, it permanently sets the compensation floor for such volunteers at 200 percent of the poverty level, roughly double what it is today.

* Require CNCS, in the selection of volunteers, to give priority consideration to unemployed veterans, others unemployed due to the coronavirus, and AmeriCorps volunteers and Peace Corps volunteer leaders whose service involuntarily ended.

* Authorize the funds necessary to hire, train, and administer 10,000 additional FEMA Cadre of On-Call Response/Recovery Employees (CORE) to perform contact tracing of those infected by the coronavirus, provide logistical support for the supply chain of medical equipment, and to fulfill other disaster and public health related needs.

* Direct the director of the Peace Corps to extend health benefits for evacuated Peace Corps volunteers for six months and to waive all non-medical application requirements for re-enrollment of all volunteers wishing to return to the Peace Corps service after operations of the Agency resume.

* Require a report from the director of the Peace Corps, not later than 30 days after enactment, 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.

“Senators Markey and Van Hollen have introduced important legislation that will address our national response to the coronavirus pandemic, 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,” said Glenn Blumhorst, president and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.