For military families moving this summer — or fall or winter — you’ve heard it before in this age of coronavirus: It’s a new world. Don’t expect the same experience with your household goods move.
Some travel restrictions have been eased, and more service members are moving. But things could change quickly, so service members and families need to be even more flexible than usual in their permanent change of station moves.
“Even though you’re doing the right thing in scheduling your move 60 days in advance, things could change,” said John Becker, interim president of the American Moving and Storage Association. Moving companies “are going to do the best we can. There are locations that are going to pop up as having a hot spot, with a new wave, or second wave of the coronavirus.”
Individual or multiple areas could go on lockdown again, affecting the PCS move, or different countries could have issues.
“It’s going to be a very different year,” Becker said. “Until they come up with a vaccine, this is going to affect people moving for the next year.”
Military orders are backlogged, moves are backlogged, and moving companies in some areas are experiencing labor shortages. New requirements for moving crews are necessary to avoid the spread of coronavirus, but they’re also slowing down the process.
U.S. Transportation Command and the services are addressing issues, and service personnel officials are “continually refining their projections for the conditions-based relocation of personnel. We do anticipate higher-than-average shipment levels in the fall and winter,” said Dave Dunn, spokesman for the U.S. Transportation Command, which manages about 600,000 personal property shipments in connection with permanent change of station moves each year.
Far fewer military members have made PCS moves this year, as a result of the coronavirus-related stop movement order issued by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper in March. According to Becker, between the official start of peak season on May 15 and June 12, military movers had picked up 15,302 household goods shipments, compared to 86,843 household goods shipments in the same period in 2019. That’s an 82 percent decrease from last year.
The moving season is going to stretch out this year for military members. According to Becker, TRANSCOM has told moving industry members officials are extending the time that moving companies will get “peak season” rates to Nov. 15. Peak season for military moves is normally mid-May to the end of August. Peak season rates mean more money for companies, helping make DoD moves more competitive in vying for the packers, loaders and truckers.
And because of the readiness needs of the services, some families may move later than their service members’ report date. For example, the Navy is allowing sailors with dependents the flexibility to delay dependent PCS travel for up to 180 days from their transfer date. Those with children in school will be authorized to delay dependent PCS travel until the end of the next school year, or June 30, 2021, whichever comes first, according to a news release from Navy Personnel Command.
Navy officials said the PCS pause affected 42,000 sets of officer and enlisted orders, and eliminating the backlog of orders could extend well beyond the end of 2020.
As travel restrictions have been eased, 39 states and seven countries have met the conditions to lift the restrictions – but that’s also subject to the assessment of conditions at individual military installations within those areas.
The Navy, for example, has announced it’s restarting its PCS moves using this conditions-based, phased approach, ensuring that high-priority sea duty units are adequately manned. Sailors transferring to these high-priority commands will move first, and may have their shore duty shortened by up to six months. Sailors transferring from high priority commands will move last, and could be extended at their current duty station by up to six months. These actions will take place on a case-by-case basis to make sure there is face-to-face relief in the turnover process.
Some things to know:
*It’s even more important to schedule your move as soon as you receive your orders, even if you don’t report to your new duty station for two or three months down the road. But don’t expect to be able to move the following week. Some service members have had that expectation recently, Becker said. While it’s understandable because troops been on hold for so long, that quick move is just not possible in many locations, he said. It takes time for companies to pull together crews and trucks.
*Get move counseling from your office responsible for household goods moves. That means everybody, this year. “We recommend all service members receive counseling, whether this is their first move or their 15th,” said TRANSCOM’s Dunn. “This is to ensure they are not only aware of COVID-related protocols, but also so that are aware of the changes that went into effect for this peak season,” he said.
*New regulations give service members more time to submit a claim for loss and/or damage to household goods, and provide a streamlined process for inconvenience claims for offsetting expenses incurred when household goods deliveries are delayed. Service members now have more time to submit a claim for loss and/or damage: 180 days from shipment delivery to submit the notice of loss and/or damage, and nine months to submit a claim on those items.
*About 700 military household goods shipments are still in temporary storage after being put there this spring when most moves came to a screeching halt. Service members on the move who are ready to receive their household goods at their destination should contact their moving company and/or personal property office to request delivery, said TRANSCOM’s Dunn.
The shipments put into temporary storage at origin because of the stop movement order have the same priority and requirements as other DoD shipments, Dunn said. Shipments must be delivered out of temporary storage within five days of the customer’s request for those household goods, he said. Companies are paid while the shipment is in storage, up to five days after the service member requests delivery. Defense officials have also allocated money (from the COVID funds appropriated by Congress) to provide a 10-percent increase in compensation for companies moving these shipments.
Whether companies will be able to deliver these storage shipments to the service member within five days is another question. It takes at least several days to arrange for a truck, perhaps longer during peak season when military moves are competing with commercial moves for packers, loaders and trucks. Add another seven to 10 days transit time when a shipment has to travel, for example, from the Washington, D.C. area to Texas, and you’re looking at closer to two weeks or more, AMSA’s Becker said.
*Labor shortages can complicate many parts of the process. Becker some problem areas are already coming up -- Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma are areas where companies are already finding difficulty in hiring enough workers, Becker said.
*Embrace the virtual. A number of moving companies have long had procedures in place that allow some functions to be done virtually. For example, in 2019 about 95 percent of the pre-move surveys were done by videoconferencing, Becker said. The moving company employee connects at a time convenient for the service member or family member, watching through an online connection as the service member or spouse walks through the house with the smart phone slowly filming everything that will be moved.
*Be ready for COVID measures. There’s no escaping the physical aspect of movers touching your belongings. The coronavirus has necessitated new procedures designed to protect the health and safety of everyone involved, but these changes are going to slow down the process for movers, Becker said. The moving companies are required to bring only the minimum number of employees required to handle the shipment. The workers must clean frequently touched surfaces in the home. Every worker entering a service member’s home must wear a face covering. Those can be uncomfortable, especially in hot weather. “We’re hearing that crews are struggling to work as fast as in the past,” Becker said, partly because they have to take more breaks.
*Don’t argue with requirements. These guidelines are for everyone’s protection. Becker said some companies are reporting that some service members won’t wear a face covering in their homes while movers are there, and service members are telling crew members not to wear the coverings. “The crews must wear them, even if the service member says you don’t have to,” Becker said.
The moving crew could be subject to corrective action ranging from simply reminding them to wear a face covering, to removing an employee, to stopping the move altogether. It’s not up to the service member or families; these TRANSCOM requirements follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Defense and service officials expect military members and their families to wear face coverings, too, and they’ve asked families to limit the number of people in the home during the pack-out or delivery process. “We do expect those family members in the home to wear face coverings while in close quarters to moving crews,” Dunn said.
The moving company is required to provide written verification that anyone coming into your home has been screened for illness and is properly equipped to work in your home.
Families must also notify their transportation office if anyone in the family is ill, to reschedule the move.
*You have power. It’s important for families to understand their decision-making authority, Dunn said. You can decide who enters your residence; you can question moving company personnel about how they’re following health protection protocols; and you can say “stop” at any point in the process. If families are uncomfortable at any point, they should contact their local personal property/transportation office and chain of command for help. There’s a personal property office locator on move.mil.
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.