April 08, 2020

Udall Joins Bipartisan, Bicameral Letters in Support of Peace Corps, AmeriCorps Volunteers

Letters seek clarity on status of unemployment benefits, ability to contribute to U.S. COVID-19 response

WASHINGTON— U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined two bipartisan, bicameral letters seeking clarity on unemployment benefits and work opportunities for Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other national service participants who have returned back to the United States amidst the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Last year, more than 700 AmeriCorps members served at 500 local sites across New Mexico. Since 1994, more than 11,000 New Mexico residents have served approximately 14 million hours and earned education awards totaling more than $30.3 million as AmeriCorps volunteers.

In the first letter, the lawmakers urge Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Eugene Scalia to clarify that the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program passed within the CARES Act covers Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other similarly-situated national service participants. While the senators observe in their letter that Congress intended service corps members to be eligible for CARES Act coverage, they are seeking certainty from DOL guidance.

In the letter to the Department of Labor the lawmakers write, “Peace Corps and AmeriCorps participants advance our nation’s interests at home and around the world by providing education, health, and economic development opportunities to the communities they serve. Due to the spread of COVID-19, the Peace Corps has suspended international operations, ending the service of more than 7,300 participants. While Peace Corps and AmeriCorps participants receive a stipend for their service, they are not eligible for regular unemployment insurance (UI). 

“We believe the terms of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance cover Peace Corps and AmeriCorps participants. If you believe there is ambiguity, however, we urge you to use the authority that Congress provided in the CARES Act to add additional eligibility criteria to extend Pandemic Unemployment Assistance coverage to participants in these programs,” the lawmakers continued.

The full text of the letter regarding unemployment insurance is available here.

In the second letter, addressed to leadership at the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lawmakers urge the agencies to provide returned Peace Corps volunteers with the opportunity to enlist in domestic COVID-19 response efforts. 

In their letter regarding further service opportunities, the lawmakers wrote, “Since the Peace Corps’ founding in 1961, its volunteers have helped to curtail the HIV/AIDS and malaria epidemics in Africa, build education systems for remote communities, and improve food security for underserved, vulnerable populations around the world. The expertise and dynamism of this trained corps are now desperately needed on the home front. For instance, Peace Corps volunteers could support affected areas with COVID-19 mitigation and surveillance activities or assist hospitals in emergency procurement and supply chain logistics. For primary and secondary schools creating distance learning programs, they could offer information and technology support and help develop curricula. Volunteers could also provide social and food support for at- risk and low-income populations, among the many other relief roles they are equipped to fill. 

“There are a number of avenues for integrating returned volunteers into COVID-19 response efforts. Given that they have completed the Peace Corps application process and have noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs, volunteers could be fast tracked into the FEMA Corps or another AmeriCorps program,” the lawmakers continued. “In those capacities, they could be immediately deployed to organizations and state and local agencies that are on the frontlines of the pandemic response. Another option would be to establish a dedicated COVID-19 Response Corps – a unit specifically tasked with COVID-19 relief efforts that could be administered by FEMA or AmeriCorps within an existing program or as a standalone unit. This new corps could draw from returned Peace Corps volunteers and AmeriCorps volunteers who have lost their positions due to COVID-19.”

The lawmakers go on to suggest a number of ways these opportunities could be implemented and ask the agencies to provide details on their efforts by April 16, 2020. 

The full text of the letter regarding service opportunities is available here.