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 Washington Post 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."
That desperation just grew on top of new uncertainty with the firing of 7,300 volunteers.