Congress, Biden administration look for ways to boost federal recruitment, retention of military spouses

Between newly introduced bipartisan legislation and guidance from OPM, military spouses are getting several possible avenues to more flexible employment in gove...

House lawmakers are looking to offer a little more help to military spouses who may be struggling to keep their jobs.

Reps. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) and Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) introduced the READINESS Act on Nov. 21. If enacted, the bill would provide more job flexibility to the spouses of both active-duty military members and Foreign Service officers.

The bipartisan legislation presents several options to military spouses working in government. Upon a military relocation, they would be able to seek an individual determination from their employing agency about whether they can temporarily work remotely, be relocated to an area within commuting distance or be transferred to a comparable job at another agency.

The goal is to support military spouses who often struggle to stay employed amid the highly transient lifestyle of military families. The employment challenges have compounding effects on entire military families.

Over a third of former military families said difficulties with spousal employment contributed to their decision to leave the force. Currently, 21% of active-duty military spouses are unemployed — and 92% of military spouses are women, according to the Labor Department.

“Without increased flexibility for working military spouses during periods of a servicemembers’ redeployment or transfer, military families are being forced to choose between military service and financial stability for their families — and that isn’t a choice we should be asking our servicemembers to make,” Crockett said in a press release Wednesday.

The READINESS Act does not have a Senate companion bill. A Hill staffer told Federal News Network the team is working to identify Senate partners, but there is not yet a firm timeline.

But the new bill is not the only effort to try to boost federal employment opportunities for military spouses. Earlier this month, the Office of Personnel Management told agencies to ramp up their use of already-existing flexibilities to help military spouses, too.

Existing telework and remote work options, for instance, can be crucial for recruitment and retention of military spouses.

“Federal agencies have long recognized the benefits afforded by telework and remote work for organizations and the workforce,” OPM said in a Nov. 9 memo. “Remote work can help organizations recruit new employees with hard-to-find skillsets or retain current employees who move due to spouse relocation or other life events.”

Some military spouses and Foreign Service officers are also part of the Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas (DETO) program, which offers remote federal job options to military and Foreign Service families that get relocated outside the U.S.

In addition to remote work and telework, OPM said agencies should make sure they offer five days of administrative leave to military spouses working for the government whose families get transferred overseas. Federal employees also have access to many other types of flexibilities, such as annual leave, sick leave, donated leave from the voluntary leave transfer program, and alternative work schedules.

“In addition to these policies, agencies should adopt policies that promote the use of additional workplace flexibilities that will further assist military spouses,” OPM said in the memo.

OPM added that agencies should use an existing flexibility that lets them reassign employees to help retain employees.

“Agencies are encouraged to develop agency-specific policies to increase retention of military spouses and military caregivers in federal careers, who may experience personal challenges that may be accommodated through a workplace flexibility,” OPM said.

For example, agencies can arrange a “compassionate transfer” for an employee to move from one agency or federal job to another.

“This would be especially beneficial to employees who are subject to relocation or participate in geographic rotational assignments,” OPM said.

OPM noted that the challenges aren’t limited in scope only to current active-duty military spouses either.

“Reserve and National Guard spouses must also balance their careers against the unpredictable nature of the service member’s schedule, activations, and deployments,” OPM said. “These challenges can continue to affect this population’s employability and career trajectory after a service member leaves the service.”

The guidance from OPM came several months after the Biden administration tasked the agency with improving the retention of military spouses governmentwide. In an executive order in June, President Biden called on agencies to develop a strategic plan for hiring and retaining military spouses.

Part of that executive order told agencies to figure out ways to better market federal jobs to military spouses to help them stay employed after a deployment.

OPM and the Office of Management and Budget, in coordination with the departments of State, Defense, Labor, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, also plan to issue a strategic plan by the end of the calendar year. The plan should offer strategies and solutions for improved hiring and retention of military and veteran spouses, and military caregivers and survivors.

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