Barrett Y. Bogue is president and founder of Evocati LLC. He is a veteran of the Iraq War, former Presidential Management Fellow, and scholar with the George W. Bush Presidential Center Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program.
In April, conservative political analyst Hugh Hewitt made a compelling case for why civilian health care workers responding to the novel coronavirus pandemic should be eligible for the GI Bill.
The idea has since taken off, with frontline health care workers advocating for it and the White House acknowledging it is considering the proposal. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Michigan, recently proposed a plan modeled after the GI Bill to provide free college for essential workers in her state.
Unfortunately, this policy proposal is misplaced due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the GI Bill's purpose and the better options that exist to equitably acknowledge the bravery of our nation's pandemic workers.
The GI Bill was designed to ease the transition from military to civilian life for millions of returning service members from World War II. The economy wasn't prepared to integrate the rapid demobilization of millions of veterans in a matter of months. The intent was to prevent the economic depression and civil disobedience that took place within the veteran community after World War I.
Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944, the GI Bill was widely credited with growing America's middle class and democratizing higher education. Today, it serves as a powerful recruiting and retention incentive for America's all-volunteer force. More importantly, the GI Bill is an entitlement program that defrays the cost of higher education that was otherwise postponed due to military service.
Civilian health care workers, and others on the frontline, are already integrated into civilian life and thankfully so. They are keeping Americans secure and saving lives. The GI Bill is not a panacea for offsetting their cost of higher education, though the motivation is understandable. There are better ways to care for frontline health care workers and others fighting the pandemic that honor their service as a public benefit.
Our concept of public service is rapidly changing due to the coronavirus pandemic. How many considered our Amazon delivery driver or the cashier at our local grocery store an essential worker before the pandemic? Without their help, and the sacrifice of others like truck drivers and health care workers, we wouldn't be able to survive at home. Though they work in private industry, their service is a public benefit. They should be compensated and protected.
Congress and the White House should modify the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) to include essential workers in a global pandemic. As our concept of public service evolves, so too should PSLF. Essential workers, including civilian health care workers, who place their lives on the line during a global pandemic should have their time in service count toward forgiving their federal student loans. This is a reasonable way for our nation to express gratitude for their sacrifice and incentivize others to seek health care roles to fight the next pandemic.
Health care workers, first responders etc. should have the same legal protections service members have under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. SCRA postpones or suspends financial or civil obligations to prevent predatory businesses and others from taking advantage of service members on active duty. This includes preventing evictions, civil court proceedings, vehicle repossession, limiting interest on all loans to six percent, and more. As pandemic workers are stretched to their mental and physical limit, they need to know their consumer rights will be protected and predatory behavior will not be tolerated.
Finally, pandemic workers need a federally subsidized life insurance program. Veterans can qualify for life insurance provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Veterans' Group Life Insurance is a federally subsidized program for veterans who cannot afford life insurance and suffered an injury or disability while on active duty. A similar program for pandemic workers would ensure their loved ones will be taken care of in the tragic case they die from an injury or illness while responding to a pandemic.
More than 75 years ago, a grateful nation supported our brave women and men returning from war by passing the GI Bill of Rights. Today, we have an opportunity to do the same for our brave frontline responders by passing a Pandemic Workers' Bill of Rights.
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