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Posted June 12, 2020

Death, infection, closed businesses, missed school days, sadness, boredom, loneliness. The problems keep coming, faster and harder than our system can handle them, with nearly half the nation experiencing rising case counts and more challenges looming as states continue reopening. We are five months into our coronavirus war, over 100,000 people have died, and we are struggling with enemies on all fronts.


So why not build a bigger army?      


Since the pandemic started, just under 45 million Americans have applied for unemployment benefits. Between payments from the state and an additional $600 from the federal government, many who qualify now receive close to $1000 a week. Which means building an army doesn’t require allocating some massive new reserve of funds, it just means modifying the terms of how we distribute money we are already spending. What if everyone kept getting their weekly payments, but in return, they took on a job combatting COVID-19? Don’t think of it as unemployment. Think of it as employment.


Contact tracing initiatives have launched in states across the country, and Senator Elizabeth Warren is behind a bill to fund and implement them on a national level. As Warren points out, these programs curb the impact of the virus while also generating employment opportunities. But contact tracing is hardly the only job that would accomplish these dual goals, so why are we stopping there?


Let’s use our unemployment dollars to put people to work bringing groceries and medicine to at-risk individuals who can’t secure a delivery on Instacart. Let’s have people make sure reopened businesses are in compliance with new guidelines by calling their employees and customers. Let’s have people reach out to seniors forced into total isolation and keep them company on the phone. And let’s have people tutor kids on Zoom. If we start thinking of all the things that could be done in a safe, responsible way, we could unleash millions of hours of labor.


But this would be more than just a way to increase our response capabilities. America is currently engulfed in anxiety, depression, and fear, with experts predicting historic surges in mental health problems. These jobs are a way to give everyone purpose and meaning, and they are a way to create unity of mission like we did when we asked those on the home front to build planes and sew uniforms during World War II.


To implement such a program, states don’t have to create new departments or manage new workers, rather they can partner with organizations already in place. The Massachusetts government isn’t the one overseeing day-to-day operations of their contact tracing program. They enlisted Partners In Health—a nonprofit organization that has spent over a decade successfully conducting similar efforts to combat other diseases in other countries. In Michigan, that same program has been outsourced to a Detroit call center.


Government doesn’t need to deliver groceries, they can join forces with the businesses and mutual-aid networks across the state that already do. It doesn’t need to set up programs matching Zoom tutors with students or callers with seniors, because there are currently multiple organizations doing both.


Its role should be to reach out to existing entities—from the private sector to nonprofits to even community-organized groups—that would gladly take on the extra staff. The state can pay the salaries, while the organizations can do the hiring, training and deploying.


Nationally, there is movement for a program with similarities to this one. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet have proposed legislation to form a “health force,” hiring and training individuals for a number of coronavirus-related tasks. But like Warren’s program, this legislation requires bipartisan support to make it through both houses of Congress, approval for significant financial outlays, and the federal government assuming more responsibility for day-to-day services than they have at any point in this process so far. It’s perhaps one reason neither bill has passed.

Meanwhile, local governments have demonstrated an ability and a readiness to move far faster than the national one. The fact that they control the distribution of unemployment means they already have in place the funding and the mechanisms they’ll need to pay everyone. And the fact that they understand the specific needs of their communities means they should be able to quickly identify which organizations to work with. States can back Gillibrand and Bennet's bill, but there's no need to wait around for it to become law.

We won’t create 45 million jobs overnight, but we can begin to put some portion of the population back to work doing something meaningful today. And as time goes on, new organizations will form to utilize more labor, and others will become better able to absorb larger staff.


With each passing week, more citizens will have a role to play in the fight and each problem will have a bigger army working to turn it back. We’ll build jobs that make a difference, and we’ll build a country better equipped for the battles ahead.

I've never served in the army, but I have been hired to test landmine detection technology. I have also been a bouncer, a singing telegram performer, and Mickey Mouse in a giant parade. You can read those stories and more in my book Odd Jobs by clicking here.

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