Today, U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet sent recommendations and guidelines to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the administration works to implement the Health Force program to combat the pandemic. The recently passed American Rescue Plan delivered $7.66 billion for a new public health workforce based on Gillibrand and Bennet’s “Health Force” legislation to expand the nation’s public health jobs and infrastructure. The senators are calling on the Biden administration to prioritize equitable hiring and service in low-income and underserved “Focal Communities”, and prioritize robust training, compensation, and reporting to ensure the landmark public health workforce is administered efficiently and sustainably.
“We were proud to work with Congressional leadership to ensure that Sections 2501 and 11001 were aligned as closely as possible to S. 32 of the 117th Congress – Health Force, Resilience Force, and Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act (Health Force), but we recognize that restrictions in the Budget Reconciliation process did not afford the precision and detail required of a legislative and programmatic endeavor on this scale. Therefore, as you implement such sections of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and work to deliver on the public health jobs promise made by President Biden, we respectfully request your consideration of the Congressional intent of Health Force, and its commitment to health equity, sustainability, and the creation of new careers in health for underserved communities,” wrote the senators.
As intended, the Health Force would recruit, train and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans to build public health capacity in underserved communities, support already overburdened state and local health departments, and provide jobs for recently unemployed workers. When implemented properly, these community-based public health jobs are known to improve local health outcomes, including vaccination rates. Health Force is inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, which similarly tapped thousands of job seekers to help the nation recover from a sharp economic downturn. By providing federal funding to State, local, territorial, and Tribal public health departments, and their partners across the country, Health Force can ensure that every community is positioned to meet its most pressing needs.
Specifically, Gillibrand, Bennet and their colleagues are urging administration officials to adhere to the following guidelines:
- A clear definition of “Focal Communities” that would be used to prioritize Health Force funding and activities in communities that are low-income, underserved, or particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.To be designated as a focal community, a community would:
- Bear a disproportionate burden of disease; or
- Be identified as a “most vulnerable” community according to the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index; or
- Be identified as a “high poverty” area, which includes census tracts with poverty rates of 25 percent or higher, as defined by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act; or
- Be identified as a “high unemployment” area, which includes census tracts with unemployment 150 percent or higher than the national unemployment rate, as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics based on the most recent data on the total unemployed, the U-6 unemployment measure or similar measure, available on the date of enactment of this Act; or
- Be designated as a Health Professional Shortage Area, Medically Underserved Area, or Medically Underserved Population; or
- Communities with limited English language proficiency, determined at the discretion of State, county, or local health departments.
- Recruitment efforts for Health Force workers within their home communities, including efforts to recruit among “focal communities” as well as dislocated workers, individuals with barriers to employment, veterans, new entrants in the workforce, underemployed or furloughed workers, graduates and students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and historically marginalized populations.
- Hiring preferences to individuals who are dislocated workers, individuals with barriers to employment, veterans, new entrants in the workforce, underemployed or furloughed workers, or community-based nonprofit, paraprofessionals in harm reduction and similar fields, or public health or health care professionals, from focal communities as described above, or unemployed or underemployed individuals.
- Robust and specialized job training for Health Force workers.
- Fair employment and compensation for Health Force workers including full-time employment, no less than a $15 an hour wage, and benefits in accordance with the Service Contract Act.
- Ensure Health Force workers are trained to fully respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and future public health emergencies, and ensure local programs are provided all necessary supplies and equipment.
- Sustainability of the Health Force to ensure long-term viability and its ability to address public health challenges after the pandemic
- Transparent progress and financial reporting to detail funding allocation, outcomes, and impacts of the program.
In addition to Senators Gillibrand and Bennet, the letter is signed by Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Tina Smith (D-MN).
The push is supported by the Public Health Jobs Now! Coalition including SEIU, Partners In Health, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), National Employment Law Project (NELP), Right 2 Health Action (R2HA), and the Center for Popular Democracy.
Full text of the letter can be found here.