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Opinion: Here's how unemployed Americans can do an important job to fight the pandemic

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 5/7/2020 Price V. Fishback
Rafael Delgado (29), who used to work as an Uber driver and recently found himself unemployed, delivers homemade tequenos, a popular Venezuelan snack, to customers in Miami, on April 22, 2020. © (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images) Rafael Delgado (29), who used to work as an Uber driver and recently found himself unemployed, delivers homemade tequenos, a popular Venezuelan snack, to customers in Miami, on April 22, 2020.

Editor's note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

It is natural to search for solutions to the coronavirus crisis by looking to the past — to the last time the U.S. witnessed a massive decline in output, income, and employment on an order of magnitude of what is expected for the second quarter of 2020.

The temptation might be to draw lessons from the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression, and to call for a raft of expansive Federal public programs. But to paraphrase a famous saying, “history rhymes, more than it repeats.”

Borrowing from the spirit of the New Deal, we propose a temporary program: CoVid Contactors (CVC) to carry out a vital next step in controlling the pandemic while opening the economy.

In this nationwide effort, people who are currently receiving the additional $600 per week in federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance would volunteer to help public health officials in “contact tracing.” Once someone is diagnosed with COVID-19, public health experts agree that we need to quickly identify their “high risk” contacts and then follow up with additional testing.

Contact tracing is an old-school public health response that has been successfully used for decades to combat diseases that spread relatively easily, such as measles and AIDS. Contact tracing provides information to those in danger and does not call for digital companies to intrude on people’s privacy.

CVC workers could carry out interviews with the contacts of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, to help public health officials assess whether additional downstream testing or self-quarantining is needed. Using cheap and widely available headsets and database software that protects the privacy of those contacted, the CVC volunteers could be trained to work safely from home to reach out to contacts of those who tested positive.

Large numbers of people currently receive benefits in every county throughout the U.S. The CVC would be positioned to assist the roughly 8,000 contract tracers who currently work in county- and state health departments, and to cost-effectively fill a need for contract tracers that is estimated at between 100,000 and 300,000, based on the pandemic’s current dimensions.

The CVC proposal asks people to volunteer and work on an important public works project while receiving unemployment benefits. The CVC will be temporary and end when the unemployment crisis ends. The current federal subsidy of $600 per week for the unemployed ends on July 31. If we still need the CVC at that point, any new funds should be shifted to hiring people for the project part-time or full-time at market wages. That way people will have the appropriate incentives to return to their regular jobs.

Americans during the Great Depression saw work relief as a way to have the pride of work while receiving government benefits. We expect that Americans today who receive the federal boost along with normal unemployment will point with pride to their contribution to help solve the pandemic crisis.

How CVC would work and what it costs

• Who would work as tracers? Unemployed workers receiving the federal unemployment insurance benefit of $600 who choose to volunteer.

• Is this fair? First, it’s voluntary. Second, the Covid Contactors currently receive $600 per week in addition to the state’s regular unemployment benefit weekly payments. If they work 30 hours per week while receiving the payments, they will receive $20 per hour for their contact work and still receive the state’s normal unemployment benefits for being unemployed.  

• Why should the unemployed do this work? “Seeking work” requirements have been waived until July 31, so presently, there is little incentive for many workers to look for jobs — especially since many jobs that have been lost in the past few months are not presently available. The battle against the pandemic requires an army of tracers. Public health officials are understaffed and have an immediate need for contact tracing.

• What is the “seeking work” requirement and why should it matter? To qualify for unemployment benefits, in normal times and recessions, workers must show that they are “ready and actively seeking employment.” It also states that “at a minimum, workers should be ready to accept work immediately if a job is offered to you.” CVC offers a way to help your country in a time of need.

• Won’t this crowd out private sector employment? No, the CVC program is temporary. This proposal aims to instill civic pride in people who want to work and are willing to work by employing them as temporary contact tracers. As the economy safely opens back up, workers will transition to looking for jobs in the private sector when the supplemental benefits end July 31. If tracing and testing is successful, the immediate demand for contact tracers will gradually decline and public health agencies can hire additional workers as needed and at private-sector wage rates. If they so choose, CVC volunteers would be trained and find themselves in a position to fill such vacancies.

• Do I have to work if I receive federal benefits? More than 30 million Americans have been added to unemployment insurance rolls in the last two months. If just 1% of them volunteer, we can meet the high-end of the estimated current demand for contact tracing.

• Are any additional funds needed? No. These benefits are already provisioned through the CARES Act. No additional funding is required until July 31.

Read: Post-coronavirus hiring practices will be devastating for many workers being laid off now

As states begin to open up their economies on a haphazard basis, the U.S. finds itself at a critical juncture in its fight against the coronavirus. Resources are needed to combat its spread and uncertainty over the future path of the pandemic is weighing down future economic activity. The CVC plan provides needed human resources to address an urgent public health priority in a sensible way and without adding to the economic burden states are bearing from the pandemic.

The virus is doing plenty of damage to the private sector now, and America needs to find ways to mitigate that damage. CVC is targeted and temporary, designed to aid in quarantining high-risk individuals while allowing the economy to operate more normally. Through contact tracing, CVC contributes to efforts to create a well-designed and concerted public health response to the next phase of combating the pandemic.

Price V. Fishback is Thomas R. Brown Professor of Economics at the Eller College of Management at he University of Arizona. Kris James Mitchener is Robert & Susan Finocchio Professor of Economics at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. 

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