Peace Corps Volunteers Can Get Unemployment Benefits, Officials Say

Peace Corps Volunteers Can Get Unemployment Benefits, Officials Say

New York Times

In previous years, returned volunteers were not eligible for unemployment benefits, but they will now be covered by the coronavirus relief plan.

A mother welcoming her daughter home after she served one year with the Peace Corps and finished a two-week quarantine.Credit…Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Peace Corps volunteers and other national service participants who lost their positions during the coronavirus pandemic will now be eligible for unemployment benefits as part of the $2 trillion economic relief plan, according to guidance released by the Department of Labor this week.

In previous years, people returning from serving with the Peace Corps were not eligible for regular unemployment benefits because the Department of Labor considered them volunteers who were not in a legal employee-employer relationship.

But the pandemic has caused the Peace Corps to temporarily suspend its operations for the first time in its nearly 60-year history. The agency evacuated over 7,000 volunteers from posts in more than 60 countries. The evacuees described shock, confusion and heartbreak as they raced home, jobless in the middle of a pandemic and economic shutdown.

The relief plan, the largest stimulus measure in modern American history, was approved on March 25 and included an additional pandemic unemployment assistance program for people who were unemployed because of a coronavirus-related reason. It provides up to 39 weeks of benefits.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, and Representative Dean Phillips, Democrat of Minnesota, wrote a bipartisan and bicameral letter, signed by 40 lawmakers, to Eugene Scalia, the secretary of labor, on April 2, asking for clarification on whether the assistance program covers Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and other national service participants.

“For decades, Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers have served our country at home and abroad — promoting democracy, literacy, development and good will,” Senator Van Hollen said in a statement. “Today, these men and women — thousands of whom have been recalled — deserve the same safety net provided to others at this moment of need.”

On Monday, the Department of Labor released guidance that officially confirmed the eligibility of Peace Corps and AmeriCorps participants.

Peace Corps volunteers usually serve for two years, after three months of training. On their return to the United States amid the pandemic, they received some compensation: $4,500 for those who served less than a year and $9,000 for those who served less than two years, with two months of health coverage, the corps said. They also have preference for federal jobs, but many of the volunteers said they were still worried about how to make ends meet.

QueenEsther Adu, 25, said her allowance from the Peace Corps was much lower than she expected. She said that she had been applying to jobs to get quick cash, including working at a warehouse, since she returned to Columbus, Ohio, from Senegal. She said she was overjoyed to hear the unexpected news from the Labor Department.

“I do think finding funds has been on the minds of a lot of volunteers,” Ms. Adu said. “I’m excited for this and will be looking into applying as soon as possible.”

Elizabeth Burke, 54, said she sold or gave away most of her belongings before she left to volunteer in Morocco. Now, she was looking for a new apartment in the Chicago area with limited funds, but the unemployment benefits would greatly reduce her emotional and financial stress, she said.

Jeffrey Castanon, 31, a Peace Corps volunteer who was evacuated from Mexico, said he had been calling his congressman every day since he returned to his home in San Diego, trying to figure out if the federal relief package could help him.

“It’s good to know that relief is on the way,” Mr. Castanon said.

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