Bipartisan legislation could help military spouses find virtual work

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(WASHINGTON) — New bipartisan legislation aims to help employ military spouses find remote work — an especially urgent consideration for a group that relocates frequently while their spouses serve.

The Military Spouse Employment Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, would allow military spouses to build a remote work career through federal agencies while they move with their spouses.

The bill, which unanimously passed in the Senate but has not yet been considered by the House, would simplify the federal remote work application process for military spouses where such accommodations are feasible. This streamlined application process already exists for in-person federal jobs but not for remote ones.

“Instead of being able to apply to two or three agencies that may be near the base where their spouses are, it is a sign they can apply to all the agencies in the federal government scattered throughout the United States,” said King. “It just vastly increases their options.”

Military veteran and spouse Lindsay Mendoza works remotely, which she says has helped her with concerns like childcare and consistent income. As a spouse, she said that she faced challenges while job hunting because employers assumed she would leave when her husband was deployed.

“It’s really hard to find a decent-paying job. I mean, like trying to look in areas for an in-person job. I feel like not everyone’s hiring, but they’re also not willing to look at someone if there’s something missing on their resume. So there always can be something done to help military spouses,” Mendoza told ABC News.

Mendoza got her current remote job through Boots2Roots, a program that helps transition military members out of service and into civilian jobs in Maine. Boots2Roots Program Director Randy Bell, who is also a recent military retiree, said that the opportunity to do remote work is a game changer that levels the playing field and helps families stay together.

“I’ve met so many people that have struggled to pursue their careers, and many of them do geographic bachelor tours, because their spouse has a very secure job, and they can’t risk losing [income] to travel with their family. They make a financial decision for the spouse to stick behind,” said Bell.

And Mendoza is far from alone. Ninety percent of military spouses agree or strongly agree that their spouse’s military service negatively affected their careers, according to the 2022 Hidden Financial Costs of Military Spouse Unemployment survey conducted by veterans employment group Hiring Our Heroes.

“With an unemployment rate that is two to four times higher than that of their civilian counterparts, military spouses are one of the most unemployed and underemployed sectors of the job force,” said Eric Eversole, president of Hiring Our Heroes and vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We hope this research not only illustrates some of the challenges facing military spouses but spurs change.”

Mendoza said her employment makes a big difference in her family’s financial situation.

“I felt like my paychecks were getting smaller and smaller with my in-person job because I felt like I was constantly taking time off because [my kids] were sick or daycare was closed because of snow,” she said, adding that receiving a full paycheck every week gives her a sense of financial security.

Another concern that could be addressed via remote work is food insecurity, King said. In 2020, nearly a quarter of active-duty service members experienced food insecurity, according to the Department of Defense.

“If you’ve got a spouse who has a good job working with a federal agency, somewhere remotely, that’s additional income. That will certainly help those families that are struggling with food insecurity,” said King.

And the bill could help with military recruitment and retention because “it gives a broader employment option to the military spouse,” King said. The Army missed its recruitment goal by 15,000 soldiers last year, and the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Navy are facing similar challenges, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Only the Space Force is meeting its recruiting target, per CFR.

Bell said this bill feels like one small way Congress has his back.

“There’s workforce shortages and crises everywhere. And it’s to me, [Congress] is recognizing the value that spouses can bring to organizations. And they’re also recognizing that there are obstacles in the way that they can move,” he said.

Mendoza said that while the bill is a good first step, there’s more work needed to dispel with the illusion held by some that military spouses don’t want to join the workforce.

“More jobs should be remote and military spouses especially should be able to have those remote positions with every two to three years moving around and not having to worry about, ‘Now I have to find a job here because we’re moving.’ It’s just so much.” said Mendoza.

If the bill becomes law, any net changes in direct spending by federal agencies would be negligible because most of them can adjust amounts collected to reflect changes in operating costs, according to an April estimate of the bill’s costs conducted by the Congressional Budget Office. The bill also would require the Government Accountability Office to report on the use of remote work by federal agencies, and satisfying that requirement would cost $1 million over the 2023-2028 period, CBO estimated.

King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said he’s confident of the measure’s passage in the House due to its widespread support and low expected cost. The bill’s co-sponsors in the Senate consisted of three Republicans, two Democrats and both independents who caucus with Democrats.

The legislation was introduced in the House and referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means in March.

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