April 13, 2020

Senators Van Hollen and Markey Introduce Legislation to Significantly Expand National Service, Fully Utilize Peace Corps in Response to Coronavirus Crisis

“UNITE Act” calls for increased AmeriCorps recruitment and increased compensation, offers priority consideration to unemployed veterans, others unemployed due to the coronavirus

Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) have announced the introduction of legislation to mobilize Americans in the fight against the coronavirus. 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 in order to enhance the response on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. The bill would 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 use their skills in service to our country. The legislation also ensures that existing workforce programs such as AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA, and FEMA CORE are fully mobilized in order to assist vulnerable Americans – including the food-insecure, elderly, and homeless – during the pandemic.

“As the federal government encourages businesses to retain their employees during these difficult times, it should lead by example and do the same,” said Senator Van Hollen. “Over 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers were recalled from their positions abroad and then left in the cold when they returned home. 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.”

Earlier this month, Senator Van Hollen led a pair of bipartisan, bicameral of letters on issues facing Peace Corps volunteers and other national service participants. One letter urged Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and FEMA to provide recalled volunteers with the opportunity to enlist in domestic COVID-19 emergency response efforts. The second letter asked Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia to clarify that Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other national service participants are covered under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program as passed in the CARES Act.

“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 Senator 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. I thank Senator Van Hollen for his partnership on this bill and urge our colleagues to join us in harnessing the spirit of volunteerism and service that is a hallmark of the United States of America.”

“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. “We also appreciate the commitment of Congress to expedite the process and provide the necessary resources through which evacuated volunteers could return to Peace Corps service.”

The full text of the UNITE Act can be found here.

Specifically, the UNITE Act:

  • Requires the Corporation for National and Community Service (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.
  • Requires 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.
  • Authorizes 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. 
  • Directs 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 reenrollment of all volunteers wishing to return to the Peace Corps service after operations of the Agency resume.
  • Requires a report from the Director of the Peace Corps, not later than 30 days after enactment, that details progress of the Agency to offer reenrollment 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.