A medical worker, left, tests a person for the coronavirus from inside a booth on April 16 at MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center, in Chelsea, Mass.

A medical worker, left, tests a person for the coronavirus from inside a booth on April 16 at MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center, in Chelsea, Mass. Steven Senne/AP

Senate Democrats Propose Creating Hundreds of Thousands of New National Service Jobs

Proposals would expand the public health workforces across federal agencies to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats announced a proposal to supplement the health care workforce through a massive outreach and training program, part of a larger effort to expand national service during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said they would introduce legislation to recruit and train hundreds of thousands of individuals to form a “health force” that will support the understaffed health care workforce during the pandemic. The bill also will include a proposal by Sens. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Ed Markey D-Mass., to expand the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s workforce. The measures are among a series of proposals by a working group of Democrats led by Delaware Sen. Chris Coons. 

“Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration mobilized millions of Americans during one of the most trying times in our nation’s history,” Bennet said, “our new health force will help bolster the COVID-19 response and put Americans back to work serving their communities and their country. We need ideas as big as the challenge we face, and the health force meets that test.”

The health force would be a new component of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Emergency Preparation program. The CDC would create and implement training for the health force and then states, localities and tribes would hire, manage and retain members using grants or cooperative agreement funding. The senators noted there would be an effort to recruit from low-income and minority communities. 

Some of the health force’s responsibilities could include: tracing the contacts of individuals who test positive for COVID-19, administering coronavirus tests, helping with data collection and delivering food and medical supplies to those in need. 

Once the pandemic is over, “the health force would provide grant funding and technical assistance to state and local health departments to hire and retain members to serve as health extension workers among vulnerable populations, in underserved areas and in future public health emergencies,” the lawmakers said. They did not provide cost estimates for the program or say how many workers would be hired for the new health force. 

Gillibrand and Bennet’s health force legislation will include an element from the UNITE Act, introduced by Van Hollen and Markey on April 13—funding to hire and train 62,000 additional people for FEMA’s cadre of on-call response/recovery employees to do public health duties and respond to natural disasters. "FEMA is a key part of the whole-of-government effort needed to combat the COVID-19 outbreak and responsibly reopen the country in phases,” but its workforce of 20,000 must be significantly expanded to meet the need for testing, contact tracing and managing supplies for states and communities in need, according to a summary description of what the lawmakers are calling a “resilience force.” 

On Wednesday, Senate Democrats introduced “The Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act,” which would provide funding for 750,000 national service positions over a three-year coronavirus response and recovery period. That bill is aimed at meeting the projected need for up to 300,000 public health workers, as Politico reported on Tuesday. 

“Under the [Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act], the number of AmeriCorps and national service positions could expand from 75,000 to 150,000 the first year and double to 300,000 in years two and three,” said a press release. “The bill would also expand partnerships between AmeriCorps and federal health agencies and increase the AmeriCorps living allowance to ensure all Americans can step up to serve regardless of their financial circumstances.” 

The full texts for the bills have not been released yet. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is expected to announce the third bill in the series on Friday.