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Council seeks plan to form conservation corps using federal Covid-19 aid

Tuesday, May 12, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The city intends to use some of its federal Covid-19 relief money to create an update of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps that was dedicated to job creation that preserved and enhanced the country’s natural resources.

City Council voted unanimously last week to direct the city manager to create a program structure focused on creating jobs and providing training on tasks such as trail creation and maintenance, tree planting and caretaking, restoration of native habitats, and management of invasive species. The program structure is due by June 8, with its budgetary guidelines expected to come from a framework for the city’s use of money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which Council expects to receive later this month.

Council Member Alison Alter said she’s been a longtime fan of the federal government’s role in creating jobs to help the country recover from the Great Depression. She said the negative impacts of the pandemic give Austin an opportunity to create an ongoing program that could be expanded if there is a larger push for green jobs in coming years.

“When I thought about the Civilian Conservation Corps it was apparent we have a model that works, that puts people to work, gives them new skills, gives them hope and could make our city a better place,” she said. “When I think about a new CCC I want to carry its legacy forward to benefit Austin, provide training those involved can use for future employment, give them hope and make Austin a safer and more beautiful place.”

The corps would need to exist without requiring the city to hire new employees, and work would need to be performed while practicing appropriate social distancing precautions.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan offered an amendment that was accepted to make certain existing nonprofits with city contracts considered for carrying out work under the corps’ umbrella, though CARES Act guidelines prevent those dollars from being used to pay for work the city is already paying for.

“I want to make sure that as the manager and his staff explore this concept that we are not precluding the possibility of this being accomplished through existing programs like American YouthWorks where there is already significant infrastructure, process and capabilities, rather than leaving the main option to be a staff-driven program,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza pushed for the city to require organizations participating in the corps program to pay workers a living wage as defined by the city, and provide training for higher-paying jobs to let those workers advance their careers.

“My initial reaction is we’re creating these hard labor jobs, and I get the comparison to FDR, but there is currently an incredibly different work ethic now than people in that time, so it’ll be interesting to know the appetite for people to apply for fairly hard labor type of jobs. I am supportive, having explained that caveat,” she said. “I would make sure we could try to provide some digital training of some sort, so maybe people doing this work – raking or whatever – then have the opportunity to get more access to tech. This work is honorable work, absolutely, but the idea of us creating this corps of jobs … I just have a weird feeling about that.”

Alter said the compensation structures for some existing nonprofits include housing, food and other benefits in lieu of a higher hourly salary, which could complicate the city trying to create a blanket policy on the corps’ requirements for payment.

“The intention is there but I’m not sure that changing it on the dais will address the concerns,” she said. “The intention is for them to pay a living wage but if we have some of the existing contracts with American YouthWorks and they have an AmeriCorps setup and it doesn’t work exactly the same … there’s some nuances there and I don’t want to create problems they should be able to address.”

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