The White House is making what it says is a big push to increase the hiring of military and veteran spouses in federal agencies, saying it wants the government to be a “model employer” for a population that’s challenged by the transient lifestyle associated with military service.
An executive order President Biden is expected to sign at Fort Liberty, N.C. on Friday includes a raft of provisions addressed specifically to federal agencies, including a directive that the government as a whole develop a strategic plan for hiring and retaining military spouses.
Most of the ideas were drawn from Joining Forces, the White House’s initiative to increase support to military families, said First Lady Jill Biden, who leads the project.
“It’s filled with solutions inspired directly by the conversations Joining Forces had with military connected spouses and children, because these families know what they need.” Biden told reporters on a conference call Thursday. “We’re asking agencies to make it easier for spouses employed by the federal government to take administrative leave, telework and move offices. We’re creating resources to support entrepreneurs. And the executive order helps agencies and companies retain military spouses through telework or when they move abroad.”
The EO tells the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget to draft a strategic plan on spouse hiring and retention within the next 180 days. Specifically, OPM and OMB will need to come up with specific ways to market job candidates who are military spouses to federal agencies, and “set benchmarks to improve performance and accountability,” according to a White House fact sheet.
Meanwhile, individual agencies are being told to make more use of hiring pathways that let them hire military spouses outside of the usual competitive hiring process. Those authorities already exist — Congress last updated them in the 2019 Defense authorization bill — but officials said they are still underutilized.
“What we heard frequently from our stakeholders and from military families was that it was a great tool, but not necessarily being utilized fully,” a senior administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “And so what the EO does is directs the agencies to attach the [noncompetitive] authority to job postings outside of an agency’s workforce, which will increase opportunities for military spouses to apply through that pathway. So we expect that it will greatly increase the number of job postings that are available to military spouses.”
For those who are already part of the federal workforce, the EO also aims to increase retention by making it easier to keep their jobs when their families get orders to relocate, including for overseas permanent changes of station (PCS).
It tells agencies to develop common standards for allowing military spouses to telework from overseas, and orders the Defense Department and State Department to draft a permanent memorandum of understanding for the Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas (DETO) program.
Agencies would also need to implement new training programs to make sure their HR workforces understand their existing hiring authorities for military spouses and the workplace flexibility options they already have available.
“My team and the Joining Forces team have heard from stakeholders that hiring managers and supervisors in both the federal government and the private sector may lack an understanding of the challenges faced by military families — for example, why a military spouse might have gaps on a resume,” said Cara Abercrombie, the National Security Council’s defense policy coordinator. “Things like juggling child care while a service member is gone for training or deployment, needing time to manage or relocation, providing care to an injured veteran — the goal really is to help civilians, especially those in the human resources or hiring roles, understand this community, the needs of military spouses and caregivers, the diversity and adaptability of this population and the skills that they bring to the workplace. That way, we’re equipping agencies with best practices to access and support this capable and diverse talent that may have been overlooked without this additional awareness.”
And the order seeks to partially address the childcare shortages that have impacted military bases around the world. Officials said it would “expand pathways” for military spouses to operate home-based child care services on bases. And it tells the Defense Department to create flexible savings accounts to help military families budget and pay for child care no later than Jan. 1, 2024.
DoD has already announced plans to create the FSA option, but a senior administration official said it was important to hold the department accountable to a specific timeline.
“And what that will help do is it will free up the challenges with on base childcare as well,” the official said. “Another thing that this executive order does, which is really exciting in the childcare bucket, is that it will also create some really targeted technical assistance and support with the Defense Department and military spouses who are themselves seeking to go through the important licensure process to hold childcare in their own home.”
Among other provisions in the order:
OPM will issue new guidance to agencies on remote and telework options for military spouses to “convey the importance of retention efforts of this resilient community of federal employees”
Agencies will be encouraged — but not required — to offer five days of administrative leave to employees who are military spouses when their families are making PCS moves
DoD, VA, and the Labor Department will work to create programs that help military spouses transition to becoming veteran spouses
The Small Business Administration will create new guides to help military spouses who own businesses move their companies from one place to another when they’re required to PCS
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will start new data collection efforts to look for additional ways agencies can support military spouses in the federal workforce