A Senate bill introduced Tuesday aims to reduce military spouse unemployment by addressing persistent issues surrounding frequent moves, federal hiring practices and child care availability.

While many of the provisions of the bill call for further study of perennial problems for spouses, some aspects could could offer solutions sooner, if the bill becomes law.

It’s difficult to quantify the rate of unemployment among military spouses, but a number of surveys have estimated it to be “between 12 to 25 percent, which is 3 to 6 or 7 times higher than the national average,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the Senate Military Family Caucus.

Kaine said he hopes the bill will be considered by the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of its defense authorization bill for the fiscal year 2019.

“If we can make their path a little easier, it’s a good thing for military readiness, family happiness, and it keeps people in the military longer if they know their spouse continues to have opportunities,” he said.

The bill would:

Increase access to federal jobs. Federal hiring authority would expand so that federal agencies can hire military spouses faster. Agencies could noncompetitively appoint a qualified spouse of an active-duty service member, something that’s now allowed only if the spouse is relocating, and pending other limitations.

Speed child care hiring. The Defense Department would be required to allow base officials to issue interim or provisional authorization to hire child development center staff while the formal vetting process is pursued. DoD’s tightened background-check process has led to sluggish hiring in recent years, reducing the capacity of the centers.

Improve program access. Spouses would be able to attend transition assistance programs with their service member. Currently they can only attend when space is available. Families also would get access to Military OneSource programs for a year after leaving the military, up from six months.

Start studies. DoD would need to look into several programs and issues involving spouse and family issues, including:

  • The effects of permanent change-of-station moves on spouse employment, with recommendations for minimizing negative consequences.
  • Ways to boost child care availability, as well as the use and availability of child care subsidy programs. Kaine said high child care costs, which can approach or exceed a spouse’s salary, may limit the spouse’s ability to work.
  • Ways to increase participation of military spouse-friendly businesses in DoD contracts, and to help military spouses launch small businesses on installations.
  • Whether spouses are aware of, and using, the My Career Advancement Account scholarship program, which can help them obtain certificates and training geared toward employment.

Kaine, who introduced the bill with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Patty Murray, D-Wash., said it was crafted after discussions with a number of military spouses, who expressed concerns about employment challenges. Last October, he held a roundtable in northern Virginia with spouses, DoD officials and representatives from private industry.

These issues are longstanding ones in the military community, and DoD has launched a number of efforts to help address many aspects, including forming partnerships with companies who specifically seek out military spouses to hire; providing career counseling for spouses; and its tuition assistance program through MyCAA.

But many issues persist.

“This is very heartening and very exciting for us. When these issues get elevated in this way, it gives all of us hope,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of the nonprofit Blue Star Families, who helped provide input for the content of the bill. “We want to stay in the military. We want to serve the country. We just don’t want it to hurt our families that much.

“Right now, it’s hurting our families because of how hard it is for spouses to work and work at the level they’re trained to. If we can solve this, it will go a long way to make this lifestyle sustainable for those who serve and those who want to serve.”

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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