Senators Van Hollen, Markey and Rep. Phillips Lead Bicameral Legislation to Significantly Expand National Service in Response to Coronavirus Crisis
With momentum building to utilize national service programs during the pandemic, “UNITE Act” calls for increased AmeriCorps recruitment, expansion of a deployable FEMA force
Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) today formally announced the introduction of legislation to mobilize Americans in the fight against the coronavirus. In the House of Representatives, Congressman Dean Phillips (MN-03) is leading Representatives John Garamendi (CA-10), Adam Schiff (CA-28), and Paul Tonko (NY-20) on companion legislation.
The Undertaking National Initiatives to Tackle Epidemic Act (UNITE Act) expands authorization of stipend and full-time opportunities within AmeriCorps and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), respectively, and directs them to prioritize projects related to the pandemic in order to enhance the response on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. The legislation 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 well as supporting efforts to test, trace, and isolate coronavirus cases. 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 use their skills in service to our country.
“Our national service organizations provide vital assistance to communities across our country and the globe,” said Senator Van Hollen. “With a wide array of skills and experience, the volunteers with Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other service organizations 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. I am proud to join Senator Markey in leading this legislation in the Senate, and I appreciate Congressman Phillips’s work to introduce this bill in the House.”
“I am proud to partner with Senator Van Hollen and Rep. Phillips on a bold effort to match the enthusiasm of Americans to serve their country during a near unprecedented crisis with expanded volunteer and full-time opportunities,” said Senator Markey. “To have the confidence to reopen our country in phases, we must surge our national service workforce to serve those on the frontlines of a crisis which will not relent until we develop a vaccine for coronavirus. AmeriCorps and FEMA are uniquely positioned to deliver on that mission – aiding vulnerable communities and testing and tracing on the scale needed to bring our country back to health. I call upon Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi to make a national service workforce part of the next coronavirus funding package.”
“We must expand the ability of mission-driven Americans from service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps to serve our country at this time of unprecedented crisis,” said Senator Blumenthal. “From public health expertise to extensive experience working in vulnerable communities, these individuals have the invaluable skills to help our country rise to the immense challenges this pandemic has made us face. The national service workforce is one of our greatest national resources - it must be mobilized effectively and more skilled volunteers must be enlisted to help us beat this pandemic.”
“The Peace Corps represents the very best in American leadership on a global stage, with volunteers serving alongside communities in their fight against sickness, hunger, and economic insecurity. They are ready now to fight for the health of the American people," said Rep. Phillips. “The United States must have a whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic that not only employs those who have lost their jobs or who’ve become underemployed, but also delivers relief to understaffed frontline workers. I urge my colleagues to join me in calling for the swift passage of the UNITE Act.”
A copy 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, Peace Corps volunteer leaders, and U.S. Fulbright Scholars, whose service involuntarily ended.
- Authorizes $6.5 billion through FY2022 to hire, train, and administer 62,000 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.
- CORE employees are temporary, full-time, benefited employees who may be deployed to other Federal Agencies or to State, Local, and Tribal Governments such as surge capacity for public health departments to test, trace, and isolate coronavirus cases.
- 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.
The UNITE Act is part of an effort by Senate Democrats to address the urgent need to expand the public health and response workforce during and in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The Senator Coons (D-Del.)-led Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act funds 750,000 national service positions over a three-year response and recovery period. The Senators Gillibrand and Bennet-led Health and Resilience Forces Act, co-led by Senators Markey and Van Hollen, would train, and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans in order to provide public health and resilience capacity for the surge in coronavirus patients and to respond to other disasters.
“FEMA has unique flexible hiring authorities that are ideally suited for the coronavirus crisis. The UNITE Act recognizes the role that FEMA can play by quickly hiring and deploying people to the areas most needed in this emerging crisis,” said Craig Fugate, former FEMA Administrator under President Barack Obama.
“The UNITE Act taps into the grit and talent of America's communities to confront our nation's public health crisis. It also helps solve the growing unemployment crisis,” said Saket Soni, Director, Resilience Force.
“In moments of crisis, Americans are eager to step up, pitch in, and find ways to contribute to solutions — national service can help our country recover from the coronavirus pandemic. National service is critical to our resilience as a nation and our ability to deliver necessary resources to Americans in need, and this effort represents a tremendous opportunity for much-needed expansion of national service programs like AmeriCorps. In the midst of this public health and economic crisis, there has never been a more important time to invest in national service. We are eager to amplify immediate emergency relief and economic recovery solutions that mobilize our existing national service workforce, support our public health communities’ response efforts, and help put Americans back to work,”said Jesse Colvin, CEO, Service Year Alliance.
“America’s Service Commissions applauds Senator Markey and Senator Van Hollen for their leadership in recognizing service as a strategic solution to addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis through the UNITE Act. Expanding AmeriCorps and recruiting unemployed veterans and returned Peace Corps volunteers to assist with contact tracing and other public health needs will be critical to combating the pandemic while engaging millions of Americans who want to serve their country right now. Our network of 52 state service commissions stands ready to support this effort,” said Kaira Esgate, CEO, America’s Service Commissions (ASC).
“The Massachusetts Service Alliance is grateful to Senator Markey and Senator Van Hollen for recognizing the role National Service can play in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. AmeriCorps members across Massachusetts are stepping up every day during this crisis to address very pressing needs in their communities. Expanding AmeriCorps and recruiting unemployed veterans and returned Peace Corps volunteers through the UNITE Act, will harness the power of millions of Americans to address the challenges facing our nation from this pandemic both now and in the recovery phase,” said Emily Haber, CEO, Massachusetts Service Alliance.
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