COVID-19 has caused massive lay-offs and furloughing across the country, but the pandemic has also created shortages and employment opportunities that did not exist before. Several cities and municipalities around the country are trying to solve these two issues by creating a ‘COVID Corps’, a public work relief program that employs individuals to form the backbone of the public response to the COVID-19 crisis.
The idea of the ‘COVID Corps’ is reminiscent of the depression-era Work Projects Administration and Civil Conservation Corps, or the more recent models of Americorps or Peace Corps, which aim to provide college graduates and young professionals with public service experience. With experts estimating that many lay-offs will become permanent, several state and city governments are looking at these direct employment solutions.
The focus of these initiatives is mainly on COVID-related employment, such as contact tracing, community outreach and assisting with food security. In Montgomery County, Maryland the COVID Corps program is aimed at those between the age of 16-23, cognizant of the fact that there won’t be many employment opportunities for people in this age range. Taking place over the summer the program is meant to replace an internship, providing participants with skill-building, financial literacy training, and other types of professional development.
Other cities, such as Green Bay, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas are starting COVID Corps to work on conservation projects. In Austin, Texas the city council voted to pay unemployed residents to prepare land for fire season. Employing about 20 people full time, the city of Green Bay is addressing projects in the 2,500 acres of land managed by its Parks Department: replacing a 20-year old wooden boardwalk, grooming mountain-bike trailers, and removing invasive plants. The funding for this project is coming from the CARES Act federal stimulus package passed earlier this year, from which Green Bay received several hundred thousand dollars.
While all of the current programs are fairly modest in their approach compared to the scale of the unemployment crisis that we’re facing, proponents of COVID Corps hope that their small-scale projects can inspire other cities to start their own, and have the idea gain traction at the federal level.