While many Americans have benefited from historic, post-pandemic reductions in the U.S. unemployment rate, one group of workers continues to struggle in securing and maintaining meaningful employment: our military spouses.
Based at locations around the world, these women and men are essential to our armed forces’ recruitment and retention efforts and are key to the military readiness of our nation’s all-volunteer force. Despite their importance, a 2021 Department of Defense survey reported an unemployment rate among active duty military spouses of about 21%.
For military spouses, 90% of whom are women, the obstacles to finding meaningful employment are unique. Military families must often relocate across the country or overseas, leaving behind families, friends and their communities. In fact, active duty military personnel typically receive “permanent change of station” orders to move every two to four years, and some — about one-third of military service members — receive these orders annually.
When military personnel are called away, a spouse often becomes the military family’s sole caregiver, removed from their support networks and sometimes forced to leave their jobs to manage the home front. These demands, combined with frequent and unpredictable deployments and relocations, expose many military spouses to discrimination from employers who are reluctant to hire and train someone who may suddenly need to be replaced.
These challenges also affect members of the U.S. National Guard and Reserve who continue to be deployed at record levels since 9/11. While they are typically based in a single state, their frequent deployments overseas can cause the same kinds of stress and hardship faced by those in active duty. When not in training or deployed, National Guard members and Reservists usually work full-time in civilian jobs in addition to their military obligations. Deployments can have a significant financial impact on military families, especially when spouses must quit a job to run the household alone.
The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, or USERRA, protects all military service members and veterans from workplace discrimination in hiring and promotions and during and after deployments. While the majority of employers honor the dedication of our service members, the Department of Labor still receives about 1,000 complaints each year alleging USERRA violations. The department resolves 89% of valid cases in a manner that satisfies the service member and their employer without the need for legal action.
Military spouses, however, do not have similar protections and the need for change is overwhelming.
The good news is that the Biden-Harris administration and Congress have taken action, knowing that military spouses deserve better. In January 2023, President Joe Biden signed into law an amendment to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act that makes most active professional licenses held by service members and spouses portable across state lines, with the exception of licenses to practice law. This law is an important change that lets military spouses continue their careers and avoid the delays of obtaining new licenses when their partner’s military service takes them out of state.
On June 9, 2023, Biden took another important step when he signed an executive order to make the federal government an employer of choice for military and veteran spouses, military caregivers and survivors. Included in the president’s fiscal year 2024 budget, the administration has proposed an expansion of federal law to provide USERRA protections against workplace discrimination and retaliation to the spouses of service members in active duty or with the National Guard and Reserve. With Congressional action, military spouses will have same workplace protection as their partners when duty calls.
With two daughters whose two parents served on active duty in the Marine Corps, our family knows firsthand the challenges military families face. We appreciate how hard deployments can be on a family, especially on children who, in many ways, grew up making sacrifices for the good of the nation. We also understand the importance of USERRA protections and need to provide the same benefits to spouses. Working together, the Biden-Harris administration and Congress can do more to show our service members we appreciate their sacrifices and those made by U.S. military families around the world. The well-being and strength of our all-volunteer armed forces depends on their success.
James D. Rodriguez serves as assistant secretary for veterans’ employment and training service at the U.S. Department of Labor.
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