Washington, D.C. — Public health experts agree that contact tracing is critical to stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Yet few states have developed intentional strategies to ensure workers can train for contact tracing jobs, especially in communities most impacted by the virus. A new report by National Skills Coalition – “Add to Contacts: Curbing the pandemic and creating quality careers through contact tracing” – outlines six concrete steps that states should take to build and support a contact tracing workforce to contain the spread of the virus and create quality, long-term career pathways in health-related fields for these essential, frontline health workers.
- Recruit, train, and hire contact tracers from local communities that have been disproportionately impacted by Covid, particularly communities of color. States can do this by (1) identifying priority impacted communities by zip code and setting targets for hiring contact tracers from those communities; (2) funding community-based organizations and workforce raining providers to partner with workforce boards and public health agencies in conducting outreach, recruitment, cost-free training, and supports for contact tracers, and (3) eliminating unnecessary hiring requirements – like criminal background checks or credit checks – which can have discriminatory effects for Black and Latino job seekers due to over-policing/mass incarceration and the racial wealth gap, respectively.
- Set standards for contact tracing jobs to ensure they create economic opportunity for workers and their families while also building a talent pipeline for other health-related occupations. States can do this by (1) using competency-based qualifications for hiring – instead of requiring degrees – and setting a target for a majority of hires to be workers without a bachelor’s degree; (2) providing family-supporting wages, access to health care, child care, transportation and rental assistance; (3) supplying contact tracers with the equipment required to conduct their jobs, and (4) ensuring that contact tracers work as employees with public health agencies or partnering nonprofits so they can easily transition into other public health careers.
- Fund and support industry partnerships to develop career pathways to quality health careers that will remain in the labor market after the pandemic. Many contact tracing jobs are likely to be temporary, lasting for 12-18 months. However, over the next decade, healthcare jobs are expected to grow more than any other occupational group. To support contact tracers in preparing for and transitioning into other jobs in the health field, states should fund industry partnerships that can align training with industry needs as the economy recovers. States can also provide technical assistance and resources to these partnerships, including data on labor market trends for the industry, and professional development on training and hiring practices that advance racial equity.
- Provide contact tracers with career pathways training grants so they can continue their training and transition to their next job. Even after they are hired, contact tracers will likely need additional skills training in order to transition into another health-related occupation. But they may not be able to afford additional training. Workers who are still paying past-due bills that accrued during the pandemic will have a hard time paying for training. States can support contact tracers’ transition to their next job by offering them training grants that cover the costs of participating in health-related career pathways programs.
- Create supportive service funds that provide contact tracers with time-limited financial assistance. Due to the severe impact of the coronavirus on many families’ finances, contact tracers may face financial emergencies that could potentially interrupt their work and training. States and localities can address this by creating an emergency supportive service fund that should be available for contact tracers up to one year after their initial hire date.
- Provide transparency on the training and job placement of workers in contact tracing jobs. A racially and ethnically diverse workforce is instrumental to the success of contact tracing efforts, as well as to health and workforce equity. State should provide public disaggregated data on the individuals who get trained and hired for contact tracing jobs, by race, ethnicity, gender, geographic region, language(s) spoken, prior employment status, or other characteristics as deemed necessary to reflect the diversity of the state or local area in which workers are placed.
“The bottom line is that contact tracing should be a local process,” said Brooke DeRenzis, Managing Director of State Strategies at National Skills Coalition and author of the report. “States should take a community-based approach by recruiting and training local health workers – prioritizing Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other communities of color who have been hardest hit by the pandemic due to structural racism – and connecting them to longer-term quality careers in health-related fields.”
Health workers with deep knowledge of their local community are more likely to be successful in building trust and connecting patients to the right resources and services. The public agrees: a recent NSC poll shows that the majority of Black (71%), Latino (67%), and Asian-American voters (72%) want contact tracers to come from the most Covid-impacted communities.
The recent surge in coronavirus cases and delays in testing have hampered contact tracing efforts in recent weeks. But over the long term, contact tracing will continue to be one of the key strategies that states and localities will need to adopt to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, safely reopen communities, and get the economy back on track. Those who are already at the frontlines of tracking the virus – along with future contact tracers – deserve support to step into quality careers after the pandemic.