The Peace Corps isn’t just bringing home 7,300 volunteers because of the coronavirus. It’s firing them.

Thanks for the ‘heads up’ from Arnold Zeitland (Ghana 1961-63)

 

 

The Peace Corps isn’t just bringing home 7,300 volunteers because of the coronavirus.
It’s firing them.

 By Joe Davidson, Columnist

Washington Post

March 20, 2020

Peace Corps volunteers in Cambodia take an oath at the
National Institute of Education
in
Phnom Penh in 2007. The 30 English teachers served in Cambodia teaching English
and supporting teachers in Cambodian provinces and districts to improve their English
language and teaching skills.

Because of the coronavirus, the Peace Corps is doing more than evacuating its 7,300 volunteers from 61 countries.

It’s also firing them.

In a March 15 open letter to the volunteers, the agency’s director, Jody Olsen, said, “We are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries.”

But nowhere in the statement posted on the agency’s website does it tell the public that all the volunteers are being dismissed. That information is in the agency’s “frequently asked questions” about the evacuations.

“All evacuated Volunteers and trainees, regardless of length of service, will be classified as having undergone a Completion of Service (COS),” it says.

That leaves volunteers like Kimberly Ruck — who have sacrificed in service to two nations, at home and abroad — upset, dismayed and angry.

Although the volunteers received dismissal notifications separate from the open letter, “Director Jody Olsen’s statement is very misleading to the public as well as the volunteers,” Ruck said by email Friday, her last day as a volunteer in her post in Windhoek, Namibia, in southwestern Africa. “What is really happening is she has ended the service of ALL volunteers and there will be no volunteer activity in any of the 61 countries until the Corona Virus is over, until countries open borders, until countries issue visas and until Peace Corps begins accepting applications to join.”

An agency statement to the “Federal Insider” said volunteers were dismissed, instead of being allowed paid leave, because “it is logistically impossible for the agency to place each of them on administrative hold for an indeterminate period of time.” Peace Corps volunteers typically serve for about two years. The Peace Corps is an independent agency of the U.S. government.

Ruck’s annual stipend was less than $14,000 for her economic-development duties in a Windhoek community center that serves orphans and vulnerable children. She said her evacuation and dismissal mean that “I abandon them when they need me the most.” Ruck, 51, now describes herself as “currently homeless, former residence Carefree, Arizona.”

Peace Corps volunteers, suddenly jobless, are returning to a country with an economy in free fall. Finding a job will be difficult. They are not eligible for unemployment benefits, because their positions “do not rise to the legal relationship of employer and employee and, therefore, are not considered in employment,” according to the agency’s legalese. The agency does provide two months of health insurance.

Ruck also is enraged by the evacuation order.

“We all know the Peace Corps volunteers would be far safer if they stayed at their posts,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to send 7,367 Americans to airports and hotels around the world where they will stand in lines with hundreds of people for hours where the Corona Virus is spreading. . . . Imagine if a cruise ship of seven thousand passengers from the most poverty-stricken countries around the world arrived on the shores of the United States today.”

Olsen ordered the volunteers to self-quarantine when they arrive in the States, according to Ruck. But the agency “refused to spend money on assisting the (former) volunteers with hotel rooms, disinfectants, transportation, and all the necessary supplies for quarantine,” she complained.

The agency said volunteers in need “can apply for reimbursement for alternative lodging.”

Olsen’s letter gave the impression that the volunteers would return to their posts. “I also want to assure you and our host country partners that these evacuations represent the temporary suspension of Volunteer activities,” she wrote. “We are not closing posts, and we will be ready to return to normal operations when conditions permit. Importantly, our host country staff will remain in their current positions.”

The volunteers, however, are done, not temporarily suspended. Conditions permitting a return to normal operations include recruiting and training a whole crew of volunteers and rebuilding operations. Those terminated may reapply.

Even while acknowledging the “very unfortunate . . . very stressful situation” for the volunteers and the “severe disadvantage” they face with no unemployment insurance, Glenn Blumhorst, president and chief executive of the National Peace Corps Association, said that dismissing the evacuated volunteers “is the probably the most prudent option. . . . We trust the leadership of the agency to make the decisions which are in the best interests of the volunteers and of the agency, the Peace Corps itself.”

Bruce Anderson, a previous board member of the association, which represents former volunteers and staffers, called the terminations “very severe.” Allowing the volunteers to maintain their status and pay, at least for some period, “would demonstrate a show of appreciation for their service,” he said by email. But “from an employment policy perspective, this was the best decision.”

Anderson’s hope is “that rather than seeing this action as a step towards reducing the Peace Corps throughout the world, it will evolve to a reassessment as to where the greatest needs are for the 60+ existing countries with ‘Posts’ and perhaps another dozen new countries currently on a waiting list, but now desperate for the professionalism the Peace Corps can provide.”

 

9 Comments

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  • While I can understand the administrative difficulty of putting so many PCVs on hold (and for the (R)PCVs as well) for an indefinite period, they could be treated with more respect and help reduce the shock they are now experiencing and will continue. Hopefully any evacuated PCV would be allowed a fast track should s/he reapply.

    I emailed a PCV who was already in the airport here in Costa Rica on her way back to the US and she was fully under the impression that she might be able to return. I have little doubt she would be safer here than returning to the US, for what’s that worth.

  • I probably should not comment because I am so angry. Thank you, John, for publishing this and to Arnold Zeitland, for bringing it to his attention. I understand that NPCA is trying to promote the federal agency which was responsible for Volunteers and at the same time, advocate for the Volunteers who have been evacuated or are in the process of being brought home. These Volunteers have great medical and financial needs and deserve all the help Congress can give them. But, I can no longer support the federal agency. There is no Peace Corps without Volunteers. So there is no Peace Corps. There are highly paid bureaucrats still employed but what their job is, I don’t know. There are RPCVs who have not yet arrived home, but it is not clear that anyone at the agency is involved.

    What is left is the RPCV community, enriched by the addition of 7300 new RPCVs.

    The House of Representatives is in recess. It is not clear to me what was the role of the Peace Corps Caucus of the House of Representatives. The members are strangly silent.

    To understand better what the Volunteers being evacuated are dealing with, it is worthwhile to become a member of the support Facebook page. It is a private group and they do ask people to identify themselves by name, country and date of service. To reach the group, go to Facebook.com and then put this title in the search box: Returned Peace Corps COVID-19 Evacuation Support [Community-Generated]

  • I am on record asking Jody Olsen to confirm or deny that Peace Corps will be shut down, period.

    There is another element with regard to China, however. The Chinese Government has made it clear that they do not want Peace Corps any more, because “We are not a developing world economy.”

    I quite agree with the PCV’s and RPCV’s who have commented how great a benefit both host and sending country benefit. Since my days in Afghanistan, I have heard from many of our RPCV’s what a difference those two years made in their self-esteem, their sensitivity to other cultures, and their awareness of what their counterparts felt about them.

    It’s very saddening to read about the current Trump Administration’s actions. I know Jody Olsen and I am sure this is not her preferred course of action. We may have to wait for a future Administration to recognize once again Peace Corps’ contribution, both domestic and foreign. Let’s hope that happens on schedule Jan 20, 2021.

    Walter P. Blass PC/Afghanistan Country Director, 1966-68

  • Jody Olson’s unilateral action to fire all PCVs– without the support of the public health community and with no needed supports for the 7,300 who will come home– caps what has been a years-long bureaucratization of a once formidable program. In my book, Peasants Come Last, I noted the destructive and unalterable decline of the Peace Corps. Sargent Shriver would have kept PCVs in place serving countries of need. Olson, the loyal Trump bureaucrat, closed it down. She has now given Trump a chance to never open it again. J. Larry Brown India-39 (1967-69)

  • Olson is a prime reason why Shriver instituted the 5-year rule. There are far too many still around sucking on the hind tit of Peace Corps, that has turned the organization sclerotic. The organization needs fresh new blood with bold ideas. Someone who has world recognition and respect.
    Our concern for the safety of the volunteer should be paramount and so should the government’s Their shoddy treatment should be an embarrassment to PC/W.

  • Having been involved with The Peace Corps for many years as a staff member, The Peace Corps did not fire the volunteers. They did the most generous option they had- they classified them as having completed their service. Otherwise, they would have been on administrative leave. By closing out their service, the volunteers still able to go back, if circumstances change, AND they are now eligible for unemployment, non-competitive eligibility, and their repatriation allowance. None of those would have been otherwise possible. This was the kindest and compassionate approach.

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