A U.S. lawmaker wants to give military spouses employment protections similar to those given to activated Guard and Reserve troops returning to civilian jobs, but some experts worry it will cause more harm than good.
The legislation, introduced June 7 by Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would incorporate spouses into most of the provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act — and go further.
This new proposal, for example, would add a provision giving spouses reemployment rights if their absence from a job is due to a permanent change of station move and the absence doesn’t exceed two consecutive years, or up to five years cumulatively.
USERRA protects military members and veterans from public or private employment discrimination on the basis of service, and allows them to return to their civilian jobs following a period of uniformed service.
The Department of Labor included the request for proposed changes to USERRA in its fiscal 2024 budget request, asking for 10 positions and $5.8 million to implement it.
Although military spouse unemployment isn’t tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on a regular basis, surveys show the unemployment rate among military spouses has remained at above 20% for more than 10 years.
“Maintaining traditional employment and advancing in careers while relocating every few years — often while raising a family — has historically been an enormous challenge for military spouses,” Deluzio said in a statement provided to Military Times. “By expanding USERRA protections we can make sure military families have more options and military spouses can more easily find employment and feel confident in their job security.”
But lawmakers and advocates had questions — and mixed opinions — about the proposal during a June 14 hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee.
“I have deep reservations about this,” said Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wisc., the panel’s chairman. “I don’t think it’s the United States government’s place to exercise these mandates on companies when the person that’s involved didn’t sign [a military service] contract.”
Van Orden also questioned whether it could have unintended consequences for spouses and employers.
The Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States supports the change, said Kevin Hollinger, the group’s legislative director. “We believe if there was a contract that was signed with the United States government, it was called ‘I do,’” he told lawmakers.
In his written statement, Hollinger said the change could benefit National Guard spouses who face increased family hardships when the service member deploys. “Spouses often must take time away from their employment to figure out new schedules. At a moment’s notice, they become the sole head of the house. Handling time off is often the only way for spouses to get acclimated.”
But under the Family and Medical Leave Act, “military spouses already have the right to take time off of work for deployment and reintegration specific needs,” said Meredith M. Smith, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association, in written testimony.
“We are concerned that the requirement to hold a position open for a military spouse following a military-ordered move would be seen as burdensome by employers, potentially making them less likely to hire spouses,” Smith said.
While USERRA aims to meet the needs of reservists who return to their civilian community when not activated, that’s not necessarily the case for military spouses.
“Most active duty military spouses, in particular, do not have a reasonable expectation they will return to a duty station if they have to leave their job due to military orders,” Smith said.
And more generally, businesses might become hesitant to hire spouses because of potential litigation, costs, administrative burdens and questions about how the legislation possibly conflicts with state laws relating to pension systems.
“We are concerned about the unintended consequences,” Smith told lawmakers. “We think the spirit of the legislation is good, to ensure military spouses are able to find and maintain employment, but we have questions about whether or not USERRA is the appropriate tool to ensure that is a reality for military families.”
The USERRA expansion might be helpful in federal government employment, however, Smith noted. Under the proposal, the federal agency would have to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that military spouses would be reemployed.
“Adopting this provision would be an important step to helping the federal government reach its goal of becoming an employer of choice for military spouses,” Smith said. But further clarification is needed on which reasons for leaving a position would qualify for the reemployment provisions, she noted.
James Rodriguez, the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, said the department “wholeheartedly supports” the idea.
“Expanding USERRA’s anti-discrimination and reemployment protections to eligible military spouses would limit barriers to military spouse employment,” he said. These protections “would also help military spouses build successful careers without frequent interruption and restarts; bolster the financial stability of their families, especially during their service member’s transition from military service to civilian life; and promote long-term financial stability for military families.”
Asked by Van Orden whether he thought there is potential for waste, fraud and abuse, Rodriguez replied, “I don’t believe military spouses would take advantage of the system that’s there to support them. I believe they actually want to work, and they’re looking for opportunities to work and looking for opportunities to keep their jobs so they can support their families. I think that’s a misrepresentation of military spouses.”
As for concerns about the federal government overreaching into private industry, Rodriguez said, “think it’s important for us in the federal government to help work with our private industries to get them to understand why spouses’ retention and employment is so important to the service of the individual.”
Smith at NMFA suggested two alternative steps that have long been advocated by various groups: tracking military spouse unemployment and adding military spouses as a target group under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This would give employers a tax credit for hiring military spouses.
“It is also an incentivizing tool for employers rather than one that could be viewed as causing potential staffing burdens,” she said.
Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL senior chief, said he understands the hardships of spouses, having been married to his Navy wife for 30 years.
However, he said, “we have to balance fiscal responsibility with also making sure the civil liberties of individual companies are not violated. They are entities with people, too, and we have to make sure we don’t upset the apple cart of the workforce by creating unintended consequences,” he said.
“Let’s see if we can get this right.” In military spouses, he said, “We have the most highly educated and highly unemployed demographic in the country. If we can do something, I’m more than happy to do that. I just want to make sure we get it correct.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.