Military families’ lives stabilizing during coronavirus, but more challenges ahead

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Some of the initial financial impacts of COVID-19 on military families are beginning to straighten out, but as the coronavirus crisis drags on and the Pentagon extends its travel and moving ban to June 30, new, longer-term issues may arise.

The newest Pain Points Survey from Blue Star Families found military families are finding their feet after taking a hit to their lifestyle when the coronavirus outbreak first started.

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At the same time, the extension of the stop move order is potentially devastating for the moving industry as hundreds of millions of dollars in expected moving fees will not reach moving companies in May and June.

The April 20, Blue Star Families report found decreases in the percentage of military families that need to dip into their savings for expenses during the crisis, those who are incurring additional childcare costs or those who are unable to pay utilities or rent.

Most dramatically, families needing to use savings or a credit card to make necessary purchases went from 43% a few weeks ago to 25% in the past week. Families incurring extra childcare costs or paying for services they can’t use went from 16% to 5%, and those unable to pay rent or utilities went from 4% to 2%.

At the end of March, one in five military families reported paying rent in two places or that they would eventually have to finance two housing payments because they already made plans to move to their next duty station when the Defense Department announced its stop move order to rein in coronavirus. The stop move order started in mid-March and was extended last week to June 30.

Kathy Roth-Douquet, co-founder and CEO of Blue Star Families, told Federal News Network that the number of families in poor housing situations has dropped.

“We are seeing some of the most acute, financial and personal life disruption aspects of the stop move order seem to be resolving themselves somewhat,” she said. “We are seeing that the number of people who are displaced or the number of people who don’t have a current place to live or who have to pay two rents or mortgages, that number is decreasing. That’s a good sign.”

Roth-Douquet said part of that decrease is because of the military’s responsiveness to the issue.

“Some of the leasing offices both on base and some of the privatized housing companies are trying to be flexible and allow extensions on leases and things like that,” she said.

The services are also providing help to troops stuck in leases. For example, the Army is helping soldiers who cannot get out of their lease with legal assistance through their chains of command.

As DoD extended its stop move order from mid-May to June 30, it is trying to put safety nets into place to stop further issues.

The majority of the most critical problems facing the more than 120,000 troops affected by the original stop move order were felt by those stuck in between moves. With more lead-time going into this extended order, families will not be stuck between two permanent changes of station, reducing some of the more pressing concerns.

The extension is also less stringent in that it does not apply to overseas troops and grants more exceptions for domestic moves.

However, the extension is stopping moves through part of the peak permanent change of station season.

The Army estimates 48,000 soldiers will be affected by the stop move order. Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, deputy chief of staff for Army personnel, told reporters during a Tuesday telephone conference that DoD is working closely with soldiers to extend ID cards so they can continue to work at their current bases.

“We put in place new policies to assist the Army family,” he said. “These new policies include DoD amendments to the joint travel regulations, specifically regarding financial entitlements. These efforts seek to ease the burdens brought through COVID-19 that service members are facing through no fault of their own.”

If the military does ease restrictions by June 30, the Army said the challenge will be conducting five months of moves in three months.

The Army is suggesting to the Joint Staff that it create a policy that would incentivize soldiers to move without using government services in that situation.

In that case, the government would pay for 95% of the weight of what is moved.

Another question is whether the moving industry will be in the shape it needs to be to handle the influx of moves once the order is lifted.

“Right now, one of my biggest concerns is the availability of the movers,” Kelly Hruska, National Military Family Association government relations director, told Federal News Network. “We’re seeing a lot of businesses that are affected. This is cutting into the primary moneymaker for a lot of these companies.”

The moving industry

That concern is very real to the International Association of Movers, which saw at least a $300 million loss from the initial stop move order.

Katie McMichael, director of government affairs for the American Moving and Storage Association, told Federal News Network that the moving industry may lose a quarter of its companies by the time the coronavirus outbreak is over.

McMichael said moving companies did at least $311 million in business with DoD in May last year and $422 million in June.

U.S. Transportation Command is trying to keep some funds flowing by providing moving companies with 10% of the cost of previously scheduled moves that have now been canceled.

McMichael said her organization is encouraging businesses to apply for loans through the stimulus package.

Headaches continue

Even though some service members are seeing more stability compared to the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, troops and their families are still suffering and are worried about the future.

The Blue Star Families Survey found 50% of respondents say they are doing worse than two to four weeks ago.

Education is a big concern for families. More than 90% of respondents said educational services are needed for their community during the crisis. More than half said their child’s behavior has changed due to an inability to interact with peers.

Military families are reporting decreases in grades and mental health effects on their children.

Almost 10% of military spouses applied for unemployment.

Financial security is also a worry. A study by financial institution First Command found 62% of service members expect to be extremely or very financially affected by coronavirus and 80% reported being extremely or very concerned.

“You’ve got to go a long way back, probably to 2008 to get to numbers that are anywhere near that,” Mark Steffe, First Command CEO told Federal News Network. “This feels like 2008 as the market has had a big reaction and a little like 2001 like when people sequestered themselves in their homes after 9/11. I think what you’re seeing here is not just a financial impact, but the economic and social impact that comes with it.”