Starting Off the New Year Right: Progress for Military Spouse Employment

It’s official! The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has approved the study of employer discrimination towards military spouses in more detail to provide recommendations that advance solutions. This action only happened because military spouses spoke up and shared their experiences with us through the annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey.  

Listen. Share. Partner. Act. 

At Blue Star Families, that theory of change is the driving force behind our work. Four simple words that, together, have a big impact. We found that to be true with the National Defense Authorization Act. For the last decade, military spouse employment has sat, with no significant statistical change, at 20%. What’s more, 67% of employed military spouses report being underemployed. We know many factors contribute to employment challenges—frequent moves, lack of available child care or high child care costs, and sparse flexible work options—to name a few. And while we’re working on programs and policies to help address those areas, we also recognize that addressing employment discrimination against military spouses is crucial to creating change. 

It’s an experience that so many military spouses have been through and one that prompted Blue Star Families’ Applied Research (AR) team to want to learn more. They first asked staff if they felt discriminated against in hiring or promotion based on their military affiliation. When so many responded yes, AR knew they needed to officially collect data points on employment discrimination. And the data was overwhelming. According to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, more than half of active-duty spouse respondents (51%) agreed their military affiliation prevented them from receiving a promotion at some point in their career, compared to only 16% of Veterans. Additionally, active-duty spouse respondents are least likely to disclose their military affiliation in an interview, compared to other respondent groups.

I’ve been there myself. As the Stories Manager for Blue Star Families, my job is to communicate the military family experience. The good and the not so good. As a military spouse myself, the stories that each courageous spouse shares often hit close to home. That was certainly the case when it came to employer discrimination. When my husband and I were dating and I was creating my first friendships with other military spouses, I was cautioned about how to artfully dodge questions during an interview. Questions like: “What brings you to the area?” “How long do you think you’ll be here?” “How long does your family plan to stay in the military?” I was told to say my husband works for the government instead of the military because it didn’t carry the same negative associations. I was also told to say my husband was close to retirement, so it would seem like we’d be around longer. At the time, I thought maybe their warnings and suggestions were unwarranted. Then, I found myself involved in the hiring process with my employer at that time. I saw excellent military spouse candidates who gave great interviews, but the company was encouraged not to select them because they weren’t seen as “reliable” employees. 

Fast forward a year or two. My husband and I were married, and I had just completed my first PCS [permanent change of station] move as a military spouse. It was my turn to sit on the other side of the interview table. I eagerly applied to positions locally and quickly lined up a few exciting interviews. I’m well educated, I had experience, and I felt like I nailed my interview for the job at the top of my list. By all accounts, I was very qualified, but I didn’t get the position. I was disappointed, but I assumed there must have been a better candidate available. I realized that maybe my rejection had nothing to do with a more qualified candidate when I got an email from a member of the interview panel a day or two later. She apologized that the team decided to go in a different direction. While I was a top choice, there was concern that it would be a waste of time to train someone who would be moving in a few years. It was frustrating and also scary. My husband was serving as a first lieutenant at the time, so not working wasn’t an option for me or us. 

Far too many stories like that exist. Therefore, things were very clear to Blue Star Families: there’s a big problem, and it was time to find partners and create action. That started with Virginia Representative Kathy Tran. With the support of Blue Star Families’ data and testimony, Representative Tran led an amazing effort in Virginia to make military spouses a protected class. Her bill passed nearly unanimously. This groundbreaking legislation created spaced for a bipartisan discussion on the importance of preventing discrimination towards military dependents, in addition to service members and Veterans.

We’re thrilled the dialogue and precedence set in Virginia led to language being included on both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This language explores perceptions of employer discrimination towards military spouses in more detail and provides recommendations for how to advance policy solutions through expansion of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, making military spouses a protected class.

Important progress is being made, which military families should feel excited about! But we haven’t forgotten about those other barriers to employment for military spouses. We’re laying the groundwork for change there, too, with our historic Military Spouse Employment Initiative launched in partnership with USAA, PenFed, and Navy Federal Credit Union. This groundbreaking work will include a three-year study of spouse un- and underemployment and the creation of a road map of best practices for businesses, so they can see the incredible potential in the military spouse labor pool. 

If you’re in need of career support, learn how you can access the tools to empower yourself to thrive at www.bluestarfam.org/careers

The post Starting Off the New Year Right: Progress for Military Spouse Employment appeared first on Blue Star Families.

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