At a time when more and more employers are embracing telework — including many federal agencies — some federally employed military spouses are being cut off from opportunities to telework overseas for their federal agency.
It also affects other trailing federal spouses — federally employed spouses who accompany their spouses on their government assignments overseas.
Two senators have written to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking for clarity about confusing guidance.
“Our understanding is that these recent changes to the policy guidance have had a negative impact on federally employed spouses who are accompanying their spouses on government assignment or military orders overseas,” wrote Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H..
They asked for specifics on the changes, and clarity. “We are concerned that this policy denies all telework requests for federal employees assigned to or near military installations,” they wrote. “We understand that [these agreements] are rare in the federal government due to increased security concerns and costs to employing agencies.”
A number of military spouses who moved overseas with their service member on permanent change of station orders have been denied their requests for approval to work for their federal agency overseas under the Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas program. In other cases, their DETO agreements have been rescinded. It’s costing spouses tens of thousands of dollars in income, and affects primarily younger spouses with three to five years of service with their federal agency, according to one overseas spouse.
The federal agency employers may be supportive of the spouse continuing employment through telework, but the process for getting the required DETO agreement isn’t.
It appears to be related to the fact that more spouses are requesting teleworking agreements, and State Department officials in some overseas areas don’t have the personnel to go out and check houses to make sure security requirements are being met, according to spouses interviewed.
The good news is that the departments of State and Defense “are working to address the issue and will notify all interagency partners through [the Office of Personnel Management] when a resolution is reached,” a State Department spokesman said, in an email response to Military Times. “In the meantime, agencies are encouraged to reach out to the State Department on a case-by-case basis for advice in navigating military spouses’ DETOs.”
Military spouse advocates are pleased to see the questions are being asked, said Sue Hoppin, president of the National Military Spouse Network. “During the pandemic, people were seeing that remote work was viable, and so more people were open to the notion of remote work,” she said. Limiting the DETO agreements “runs counter to the Biden/Harris administration’s goal of making the federal government an ‘employer of choice’ for military spouses,” she said. “We have an opportunity to make things work in terms of military spouses in federal jobs working [overseas] who could work through PCS, and now we’re putting up an artificial barrier?”
Some spouses interviewed said it’s the military family having to foot the bill for security requirements for a DETO, such as bomb- and shatter-proof glass, specific door locks and an alarm system to notify the State Department if there is a break-in. One spouse said she spent $15,000 on security requirements.
“The safety and security of U.S. personnel are among our highest priorities,” the State Department spokesman said. “We can’t speak to any costs incurred by individuals, as the Overseas Security Policy Board — with members from all executive branch agencies stationed overseas — agrees upon standards that must be met, to include residential security standards.”
State Department officials did not provide a number of how many spouses are working under these federal teleworking agreements overseas. But spouses interviewed said they estimate “hundreds” are affected, and some are on leave without pay waiting for a DETO to be approved.
The confusion is related to official communications late last year, including written communication to State Department officials in Germany that no more DETO agreements would be approved, according to military spouses interviewed.
In some other countries, the situation is uncertain. Some spouses are being denied their application or their DETO agreements are being pulled, although there is no written communication about local policy changes.
Spouses interviewed asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, although they noted their federal employers have been supportive in trying to help them get and keep their telework agreements.
They say they’ve been told the reason for the change is the increase in the number of requests for these teleworking agreements. There’s a lack of personnel to go out and check houses to ensure they meet security requirements.
The standards apply whether the spouse lives on a military installation overseas or outside the base. But the houses outside the gate have to meet the military’s security and safety requirements for service members and their families to live there, spouses said.
Under federal law and presidential directive, all DETO agreements, including those of military spouses, fall under the authority and security responsibility of the State Department chief of mission, the State Department spokesman stated. “Spouses of DoD service members assigned to military installations are eligible for DETO arrangements. However, when the sponsoring employee is not under [chief of mission] security responsibility, it is difficult for the relevant U.S. mission (nearest embassy or consulate) to provide adequate security services and ensure required residential security and safety standards are met,” he said in the email response.
“The security standards are already there,” said one spouse. “The logical answer is that we’re under the Defense Department’s responsibility. The security standards are already there. This is redundant.”
In effect, this gives spouses unfavorable options: Stay behind in the U.S. and pay for two separate households, with yet another forced military separation; or be forced to resign from their federal job, losing tens of thousands of dollars or more in income, as well as career progression, years of Thrift Savings Plan and retirement benefits and life insurance.
Meanwhile, DoD officials have reported to Congress that it’s not feasible to provide telework facilities on overseas military bases for military spouses working for private companies.
In the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required DoD to establish a pilot program to determine whether the idea was feasible, but no such pilot program was undertaken.
“There are multiple insurmountable challenges involved in the establishment of telework facilities overseas,” DoD officials stated in a report provided to Congress, obtained by Military Times.
Among the challenges: military spouses working for a U.S.-based company may be required to pay both host nation and U.S. taxes. There are also security concerns. “Military spouses would be unable to utilize DoD networks for connectivity. Some companies have expressed hesitancy in having spouses use host nation Internet service providers,” DoD officials stated.
DoD is conducting a study on co-working spaces for military spouses on installations in the U.S., and the Army launched its first co-working space at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, in 2021.
Congressional reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
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.