In the United States' effort to stomp out the spread of the coronavirus, two Democratic senators are taking a cue from a national program launched during the Great Depression to galvanize today's workforce.
Proposed legislation announced Wednesday by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., would create a "Health Force" that would recruit, train and employ Americans — ideally, pulling from among the millions now unemployed during the pandemic — into public health and health care careers.
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The senators said the bill is a nod to the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 and put millions of Americans to work building roads, schools, water lines and other infrastructure.
Gillibrand said the goal of the health force would be to give hundreds of thousands of Americans jobs to respond to the coronavirus outbreak "and meet existing and emerging public health needs."
"In the face of this unprecedented crisis, Congress must harness American patriotism, resilience, and ingenuity by establishing a Health Force to combat this deadly virus," Gillibrand said in a statement.
The legislation is part of three proposals by a working group of Senate Democrats to expand the public health response to the coronavirus, including a public service package announced Wednesday by Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and others that is proposing to expand volunteer national service groups like AmeriCorps to help perform virus testing and contact tracing.
Bennet and Gillibrand said the health force would be trained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and managed by local and state health departments. Those workers would do diagnostic testing, contact tracing and administer a vaccine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, whenever one becomes available.
Workers could also perform other tasks, including public messaging that would debunk virus-related misinformation, providing data entry in support of epidemic surveillance, delivering food and medical supplies to those whose health is high risk, and providing hospice and end-of-life care.
Exactly how many workers and the costs associated with recruiting, training and hiring were not immediately known.
How to reinvigorate the American workforce has become an ongoing debate among politicians and policymakers. To get the economy roaring again and workers back in action, some governors in the South have started loosening their restrictions meant to contain the spread of the coronavirus and have allowed some businesses to reopen.
Meanwhile, the House is set to vote Thursday on a Senate-passed interim coronavirus bill worth nearly $500 billion that includes additional money for the small-business loan program, as well as for hospitals and testing.
Bennet said the health force "will help bolster the COVID-19 response and put Americans back to work serving their communities and their country."
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In addition, the legislation would provide grants for local and state health departments to continue to employ those workers in a public health capacity to help in vulnerable and underserved communities or in future public health crises.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency would also benefit from funding through the bill to hire and train 62,000 more workers for its Cadre of On-Call Response/Recovery Employees, or CORE. Such workers are generally hired for full-time positions that last about two to four years, performing public health functions and helping to respond to natural disasters.
A similar initiative is part of a bill introduced this month by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., to ensure workforce programs, including AmeriCorps and FEMA CORE, are adequately used and their workers mobilized during the pandemic.