We are living in a disaster economy. The federal government’s $2 trillion disaster-aid package buys time and immediate relief for American workers and businesses. But a real recovery will depend on how we strengthen our economy for the long term. That’s going to take more than stimulus checks and unemployment benefits. It’s going to take investing in the right kinds of workers, right now.
America needs to support, protect and expand what we call the Resilience Workforce. These are the millions of people who go to work when disaster strikes—on the ground, in the trenches, often outside. They are essential to our response and drive our recovery. They are builders, nurses, food-deliverers and counselors. They keep hospitals, schools, warehouses and supermarkets running, stocked, lighted and clean. They keep our ailing elders safe and comfortable. They grow and pick our food. And they deliver it, so that the rest of us can shelter in place. The stronger this workforce is, the better our society’s ability to ride out and rebuild from disasters.
But today, laboring for us on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, these workers are also vulnerable—to getting sick, to losing their jobs and pay, to being unable to continue doing the vital work they do. We need this workforce to be safe and stable. And we need it to grow.
On the other side of the curve that we’re trying to flatten are double-digit unemployment numbers—millions of workers laid off from restaurant and hotel jobs that may never come back. They could become exactly the Resilience Workforce we’ll need.
Congress should create a New Deal-style, federally funded national service corps and jobs program in essential, frontline industries connected to disaster response and recovery: a Resilience Corps. It should be modeled after the Works Progress Administration, which during the Great Depression employed 8.5 million people who were supporting 30 million additional dependents.
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A small version of the Resilience Corps we need already exists within FEMA, through its Cadre of On Call and Response/Recovery Employees (CORE) and FEMA Reservist programs, which allow FEMA to quickly hire needed specialists and laborers.. As a small first step, FEMA can modify and expand these programs, including removing the requirement that only U.S. citizens can serve in them.
The Corps could train millions of Americans, improve their skills and put them on professional paths through apprenticeships. Membership in the Corps should be wide-open, including to otherwise-qualified workers who have past criminal convictions and to immigrants.
One truth about our current Resilience Workforce: it could not exist without immigrants. According to the National Home Builders Association, immigrants make up about a quarter of the construction workforce. They repair our homes after hurricanes and are getting ready to retrofit hotels to turn them into makeshift hospitals. Research reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association says one out of six medical professionals are foreign-born. Other essential workers are immigrants as well: farmworkers, meatpackers, maintenance and transport workers, food-preparation and -delivery workers, and the workers caring for elders, children and others.
Seen in this light, an “us vs. them” mindset about immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers is at cross-purposes with recovery during our nation’s greatest need since the Great Depression. In moments of crisis at this scale, as we’ve learned again and again, there is only us, and we need everybody to pitch in. We are all in this together.
When this pandemic eases, the Resilience Corps could become part of America’s permanent disaster-response infrastructure, as should its inclusiveness, since natural disasters are becoming more frequent and destructive. In a world of increasing heat, America will face new hurricanes, floods and fires. With a dangerously changing climate and a crumbling national infrastructure—in transportation, public health and so many other critical areas—the Resilience Corps is nothing short of a necessity. (Already, the $16 billion program created by Congress to help states better prepare for natural disasters needs workers to carry it out, and hospitals are scrambling to find nurses.)
Maybe Congress isn’t ready right now to tackle this big idea. But this pandemic—this medical and economic disaster—will be with us for a while. It’s likely that in the coming weeks and months we will be debating more rounds of stimulus. And it’s likely that a trillion dollars of infrastructure infusion will create a tremendous opportunity for hiring.
If we’re serious about disaster recovery, then let’s do it right. Let’s put America back to work and rebuild our infrastructure, so that we are far less vulnerable to the disasters that are certain to come next. Let’s decide that resilience is a top priority and that we need each other to make it happen.
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