As U.S. governments deal with COVID-19 at every level, there’s a feeling that this period of time is about simply getting through it — finding enough money to pay for city, county, and state services. But some are also planning for when the work of rebuilding starts.
AmeriCorps, a voluntary service program run by the U.S. government, could be instrumental in rebuilding the country in the wake of coronavirus. To that end, the organization established an Emergency Response Member program set to start next month that will recruit new volunteers for this work. ServeMinnesota, the organization that organizes AmeriCorps in the state, has already announced summer opportunities in communities to help with COVID-19 around the state, including Alexandria, Bemidji, Minneapolis, and Duluth.
But capacity is limited. Each year, in total, AmeriCorps only sends 75,000 people around the country to more than 21,000 locations. Rep. Dean Phillips, Democrat of Minnesota’s Third District, wants to rapidly increase the size of the organization.
Six-fold increase in volunteers
Phillips’ bill, The Undertaking National Initiatives to Tackle Epidemic (UNITE) Act of 2020 would expand AmeriCorps from 75,000 to 500,000, increasing capacity by about six times.
“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,” Phillips said in a statement, “but also delivers relief to understaffed frontline workers.”
In Minnesota, many of the planned COVID-19 response placements are local with a Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, or Food Bank, but there are also opportunities to work with the Minnesota Department of Human Services or the Hennepin County government. The current plan is to distribute 275 volunteers across the state, but Phillips’ bill would likely increase that number substantially.
“COVID-19-related service could include a combination of several response tasks such as emergency food distribution, distance learning, support to help older adults cope with social isolation, and more,” Audrey Suker, ServeMinnesota’s CEO, said in a blog post.
There are incentives for AmeriCorps volunteers besides just a desire to serve. Accepted applicants get health insurance, child care assistance, federal student loan forbearance and a stipend of $650 every two weeks. Phillips’ bill would increase that stipend significantly, setting the compensation floor for volunteers at 200 percent the poverty level, double what it is now.
Phillips’ bill would also require AmeriCorps to prioritize selecting unemployed veterans, others unemployed due to the coronavirus, and Fulbright Scholars, AmeriCorps volunteers, and Peace Corps volunteers whose service abruptly ended as countries around the world shut down in response to the spread of COVID-19.
The UNITE Act would also would authorize new funds to hire, train, and administer 62,000 additional FEMA staff to expand the agency’s ability in several capacities, including performing contact tracing of those infected by the coronavirus.
The UNITE Act originated in the Senate and is sponsored by Sens. Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts; and Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland.