First Look

Lawmakers press agencies on ‘employment barriers’ for federal employees teleworking overseas

Democrats on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee are asking 24 agencies how many employees are holding jobs while teleworking overseas.

The Biden administration is stepping up plans to make the federal government an employer of choice for military and Foreign Service families. Now lawmakers are pressing agencies for an update on these efforts.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee are asking agencies how they’re “eliminating employment barriers and advancing employment opportunities” for military and civilian families who serve overseas.

The 11 committee members, led by Ranking Member Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) are specifically asking the 24 largest federal agencies about how many of their employees are holding jobs while teleworking overseas, as part of the Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas (DETO) program.

“Military-connected and other civil service families have been and continue to make major sacrifices to serve our country. As the largest employer in the nation, the federal government has an obligation to military families who deserve ‘nothing less than the dignity of a meaningful career and the opportunity to build economic security,'” the lawmakers wrote.

The DETO program dates back to 2009, and is intended to provide more secure career options for spouses of military or Foreign Service members who are stationed overseas.

The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required agencies to clarify remote work for employees who normally perform their work with the U.S., but are unable to do so, because their spouses are deployed overseas.

The lawmakers, in letters sent Tuesday to the 24 agencies, are asking for a copy of their DETO policies, and an update on whether they’re meeting the DETO requirements in the NDAA.

Among their questions, the lawmakers are asking agencies if they track the number of military-connected and Foreign Service spouses they employ.

“Expanding overseas telework and remote work opportunities for DETOs will increase career opportunities for military and other civil servant families assigned to serve overseas,” they wrote.

The committee members are also asking agencies how many DETO agreements they’ve approved or denied, as well as how many military or Foreign Service spouses have left federal service.

Lawmakers are giving agencies until May 21 to respond.

“Telework is essential to military spouses employed by the federal government who are ‘pulling double duty’ as they simultaneously serve our country and support their spouse’s military career,” the lawmakers wrote.

While DoD and the State Department employ the most DETOs, other agencies are stepping up efforts to allow individuals to hold federal jobs while living overseas.

Hank McKnelly, executive counselor to the commissioner of the Social Security Administration, told members of the House Oversight and Accountability Committee at a hearing on telework last November that SSA is working with the State Department on creating a DETO program.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also highlighted its participation in the DETO program, after announcing “historic commitments to hire and support military spouses” in March.

Generally speaking, it’s easier for prospective DETOs to be well-established in their federal careers before looking to work remotely overseas.

Active-duty military families face a permanent change of station moves every two to three years on average.

“Each move can result in a spouse quitting their job, which may compromise their ability to maintain their career trajectory,” the lawmakers wrote.

About 90% of military spouses are women. The military spouse unemployment rate stands at 21% — and has remained that high for the past 30 years.

Lawmakers point out the unemployment rate for military spouses is about six times as high as the national average, “making it increasingly difficult for military families to achieve financial security.”

Nearly one in five military families cited spousal employment as a reason for leaving military service.

While the DETO program has been around for about 15 years, lawmakers and the Biden administration have been taking recent steps to expand the program.

Lawmakers included language in the 2023 NDAA that gave DETOs a locality pay equivalent. That legislation led to hundreds of DETOs seeing a significant pay raise.

President Joe Biden also signed an executive order last summer, requiring agencies to develop common standards for DETO policies, “to promote consistency and effective coordination in the implementation of the DETO program across the executive branch.”

At a White House ceremony last month, the Defense Department and State Department signed a memo streamlining the process for federal employees to continue their careers as part of the DETO program.

The permanent memorandum of agreement allows DoD and the State Department to work together to simplify the approval of DETO arrangements for those who plan to work remotely from military-managed residences while overseas.

The memo streamlines residential safety and security screening requirements for DETOs. The Biden administration says this will eliminate State Department inspections of military housing, and shorten the DETO approval process.

More than 16,000 military, veteran, and surviving spouses work for the federal government.

First Lady Jill Biden is championing the DETO program as part of her Joining Forces initiative, which supports families of service members and veterans, as well as their caregivers and survivors.

Biden said military spouses often struggle to keep a steady job when their families move every few years — and that it can be especially hard to maintain a career that began prior to living overseas.

That burden on military families, she added, makes it harder for service members to continue in their military careers.

“They’re stressed about how difficult it is to make ends meet on one income, questioning how long they can serve their country when their spouse is unhappy or unfulfilled. We cannot allow military families to be alone,” Biden said.

Biden said the memo makes it easier for the federal government to hire military spouses and gives them time off when they have to move.

Julie Humphreys, a DETO living in Stuttgart, Germany, and working for the State Department’s Bureau of Global Talent Management, said at the White House event last month that her family has moved 13 times over the past two decades.

“Needless to say, it is not always easy to maintain your career when you pack your house up every few years,” Humphreys said.

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