Some states have made progress in making it easier for military spouses to transfer their occupational licenses from one state to another, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, according to a new report issued by the Defense Department.

And although DoD doesn’t have control over states’ requirements when it comes to these occupational licenses, defense officials are racheting up their efforts to persuade states to address the problem. It’s a key focus area in Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s new line of effort in taking care of service members and their families. The report was requested by Esper to assess where states stand, and to suggest ways to help states improve their efforts.

Whether they’re nurses or attorneys or teachers, military spouses have long struggled with the hassle and expense of getting their occupational license in a new state when they make a move with their military member — delaying their ability to get a job and adversely affecting their family’s finances. By law, the services can now reimburse spouses for up to $1,000 in expenses for getting relicensed in their occupation when they move with their service member to a new duty station.

While many states have enacted some form of relief in this area, “these methods proved insufficient to address the underlying concerns of military spouses,” the report stated. About 34 percent of spouses of active-duty members are in occupations that require a state license to work.

The number of occupations that require licenses vary from state to state, said Marcus Beauregard, director of DoD’s State Liaison Office, which has been working with the states since 2011 to encourage them to provide some licensure relief for military spouses. For example, North Carolina has about 200 separate licensed occupations, he said.

The primary responsibility for these occupational licenses lies with states, and standards can vary widely.

The report, which has been delivered to members of Congress and state governors, lays out some immediate, near-term and long-term solutions. But it also notes, “how fast these actions and solutions can be approved and implemented is up to the states.”

Now, defense officials have laid out a baseline goal for states’ near-term actions: Get military spouses a license within 30 days based on minimal documentation.

“If a military spouse can put in an application that has a minimum amount of documentation, and get that license within 30 days, then that’s a good process. That license could be a temporary license, understanding that the state may need to see more documentation to determine substantial equivalency or to determine that the spouse can get that state license,” Beauregard said.

DoD has also laid out long-term solutions for reciprocity through interstate compacts. These compacts establish common descriptions of competency and its measurement within a particular occupation, and then seek to have states approve the compacts through legislation. Each compact for each profession would have to be approved by each state. The fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act also requires DoD to work with the Council of State Governments to help with funding the development of these interstate compacts on licensed occupations.

DoD will track an overall assessment of states based on commitment to these approaches for all occupations, according to the report. This “performance report” of sorts for states may hold the most value in moving the needle to help spouses, said Jennifer Davis, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association. These assessments will show each state where they are in the process of speeding up licensure reciprocity and will show them where they can improve, Davis said.

While interstate compacts provide the smoothest way to transfer an occupational license across state lines, those compacts take time to stand up, Davis said. So showing states "immediate and short-term ways to grant that reciprocity to military spouses should be helpful to states seeking to provide more support to military families,” she said.

There are currently occupation-specific compacts for physicians, nurses, physical therapists, emergency medical technicians, psychologists, and audiologists/speech-language pathologists. For example, the nurse licensure compact has been approved by 34 states, and is being considered by 10 more states in 2020, Beauregard said. Another 10 to 15 occupations are considering the process for establishing a compact, according to the report.

Spouse licensure portability is critical

“The Department is committed to improving license portability for military spouses,” stated the report.

Esper has identified spouse licensure portability as critical to supporting military families, said Vee Penrod, acting assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, in a call with reporters. Last fall, Esper added a fourth line of effort in the National Defense Strategy: taking care of service members and their families.

In 2018, the then-service secretaries — including then-Secretary of the Army Esper — encouraged military service leadership to consider the availability of military spouse licensure reciprocity when evaluating future basing or mission alternatives, in a letter to the National Governors Association. This added emphasis has prompted some action in the states, according to the report.

In September, Esper asked the Council of Governors for their help in addressing some issues that are the primary responsibility of states, including license portability for military spouses.

DoD’s State Liaison Office has been working with states since 2011 to make them aware of the problem and the effect on military families. They’ve been tracking states’ progress in passing legislation. As the report notes, it will take more time to address the issue with all occupations in all states.

According to the DoD report, 39 states have enacted laws that allow for endorsement of a current license from another jurisdiction; 42 states have enacted laws for temporary licensure; and 31 states have enacted laws for expedited application procedures. In addition, 24 states have passed laws that support all three methods.

But even when state legislation was passed, it didn’t always solve the problem. A University of Minnesota study commissioned by DoD found “significant problems with communicating licensure processes even when supportive legislation was in place,” the report stated. It was very difficult for spouses to find the appropriate forms, where to submit that form, and guidance through the process, said Beauregard.

The most immediate action states can take is to highlight these policies and procedures clearly for spouses on their websites; make sure the policies are implemented in applications and procedures; and make sure staff is trained, according to report.

The Department of Labor has set up a website, based on DoD’s data about licensing to help military spouses understand the laws of each state, and to find information about the appropriate licensing board in the states for each occupation.

Beauregard cited some examples of state best practices:

* Arizona offers universal licenses, taking a provision that was exclusively for military spouses, and offering it to everyone who becomes a new resident, if they come in with a current license that’s in good standing, with a background check, and appropriate fees paid.

* Utah allows military spouses to work on a license from another state without getting a new Utah occupational license.

* Texas has researched the equivalency of all the other states for the particular occupations, so that when a military spouse comes in, the Texas board for that particular occupation will know whether that state’s license is equivalent to the Texas license. They’ll provide the license, removing the paperwork, hassle, and get it to the spouse faster.

* Ohio recently enacted a provision that allows for current temporary occupational licenses from other states to be valid for six years in Ohio.

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.

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