AmeriCorps worker Grisell Martinez helps gut a house being renovated into affordable housing by PUSH, a nonprofit organization working to rebuild the West Side of Buffalo. Reuters/Brian Snyder
During their years of national service, AmeriCorps members deal with long hours and little pay—and that’s when the federal government is working. Due to the government shutdown, members of the AmeriCorps VISTA program are receiving no pay—and are still required to show up at work.
While several government agencies have furloughed workers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, around 8,000 Americans working to fight poverty, are among the federal workers who must continue working for no compensation. Even worse, VISTA members are prohibited from taking a second job to supplement their income, leaving some members short on rent payments and food.
VISTA members were left in the lurch on Monday night, when the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) sent out an e-mail to VISTA members explaining that they would be required to continue working during the shutdown, but would only be paid for their work once the government is funded again. The CNCS then closed its website and offices as the government shut down.
Writing on the VISTA Facebook wall, VISTA member Michael Lam wrote that the CNCS “sent out a letter stating they expect us to work with no guarantee of pay in sight. After which no one is around to address the obvious concerns around the whole thing. What if the funding lapse lasts 1 month? VISTA members will incur fees / interest from not being able to pay their bills.”
Most VISTA volunteers earn so little that they live paycheck to paycheck. While that money is promised to them at the end of the shutdown, it’s little help to an AmeriCorps volunteer who worries about how they’ll put gas in their car or pay their cell phone bill.
What VISTA members are facing that is different from the other “essential” federal employees who are working without pay is job security. While most federal employees enjoy union membership, VISTA members’ employment is far less secure. VISTA members are required to perform service every day—excluding weekends and limited vacation—of their service year. By refusing to work while they are not being paid, a VISTA volunteer could be fired. They can be dismissed for a litany of reasons, including agitating for better working conditions. And for many, their student loans would quickly become unfrozen if they were to be fired.
AmeriCorps VISTA members have resorted to asking the communities they are supposed to be serving for financial support. A homeless shelter in Little Rock, Arkansas, is asking community members to donate gas cards or gift cards to help the AmeriCorps members buy groceries.
“When the federal government doesn’t follow through on their promise to provide a living stipend so that our service members can give to the homeless, I think that message is a message that really lets a lot of young people down,” Georgia Mjarten, the executive director of Our House homeless shelter told local news station KARK.
“Why is it that if we are considered federal employees we are being made to continue to volunteer not getting paid which goes against the antideficiency law that prohibits federal employees from volunteering to continue to work during governmental shut down?” asked VISTA member Gigi Tharpe on the Facebook message board, where VISTA member are venting their frustration.
Instances like the shutdown that demonstrate the obstacles AmeriCorps has in actually providing meaningful work experience to low-income and young Americans. With the stipend already so perilously low, uncompensated labor can sour anyone on the entire experience of service.
“AmeriCorps needs to engage people who are not yet civically minded or engaged and bring them in. AmeriCorps is bringing in people who are already engaged and not people who are disenfranchised instead, and the low stipend is a huge reason for this,” Peter Frumkin, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, told me when I interviewed him for a recent Nation piece on the promise, and pitfalls, of AmeriCorps service for young people.
With no end to the shutdown in sight, AmeriCorps VISTA members face a hard road ahead of them. They are being made to work, without a real choice, for no pay. There’s a word for that, and it’s not “service.”
Read Max Rivlin-Nadler’s feature on FEMA Corps, “The Young, Low-Wage, Temporary Disaster Relief Army.”