Military spouse employment is an issue affecting military families, and legislation is moving forward, allowing for license reciprocity and expansion of on-base employment programs to include military spouses, paving the way for increased employment opportunities. None of these expansions affect those living overseas.
Living overseas often means fewer employment opportunities for military spouses. Positions on the post are filled by active-duty service members, Government Service (GS) employees, and local, national contractors. While military bases overseas can accept professional medical and teaching licenses from any state, that only applies if a position is available. Paid jobs are rarely available. Instead, spouses’ only opportunity is to volunteer with the American Red Cross or other similar organizations.
Spouses take these positions, hoping to jump on a paid position if one opens. Overseas bases rely on such uncompensated volunteers in on-post hospitals and clinics.
Per the Red Cross, this saves a military hospital in Germany more than $600,000 every year. Neither the Red Cross nor the hospital covers childcare for those volunteering. This means spouses pay for childcare without paid employment, which is not financially feasible for many military families living overseas. These unpaid spouses volunteer so they can maintain their professional credibility. The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany reported 275 Red Cross Volunteers working 20,600 volunteer hours in 2022. These volunteer positions include assisting patients, phlebotomy (drawing blood for lab work), physicians, dentists, nurses, and physician assistants. These jobs require taking on risk, requiring a highly specialized skill set and professional licenses and education that cost hundreds or thousands a year.
Remote work while living overseas is challenging because of distance, time differences, and legal restrictions. Some Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA), agreements that military families must abide by while living in a foreign country as part of their military service agreement, do not allow spouses to work remotely. Or remote companies do not qualify for work in that country. If remote work can be found, the hours may be East Coast Time while the military spouse lives in the Pacific, with a 13-to-14-hour difference depending on the time of year. Telework is allowed in Japan, South Korea, Bahrain, and Germany per the current SOFA agreements.
The SOFA is not the same across all military stations overseas. In Italy and Belgium, spouses must give up their SOFA status to work off-base – this would mean losing the NATO driver’s license required to drive in Italy. In comparison, spouses in Germany may telecommute for an American job or work in the German economy without losing their SOFA status.
The SOFA agreement also may limit home-based businesses depending on the country the military family resides in. Say goodbye to that finally established Spouse-ly shop. These regulations may be in place not by the specific country but by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) to limit revenue competition.
What jobs are open on post due to high turnover are those in retail or food service, but the pay is low – even at around $10 an hour. These positions have no benefits, and shift work still requires child care, which typically costs more than $10/hour.
While these military families are on one-income, many qualify for low-income programs because their income is below the poverty line. Stars and Stripes shared one person’s account about their time overseas. “It’s depleted our family’s savings account, forced us to lower our standard of living, and affected my mental health in that I feel I’m no longer a useful contributor to my family’s well-being.” This lack of morale in the military family also affects the military service member. It may lead to family discord and emotional and financial stress on the service member. It may lead to the service member finishing their current commitment and exiting the service. Family stressors are a retention problem for these experienced servicemembers.
Per Stars and Stripes, 6,786 military members based in Europe qualified for the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental food program (WIC) from January 1 to October 26, 2022. At the time of writing, the 2022 statistics were not available for review to know the number of military service members stationed in Europe during that period.
The way ahead requires legislative and cultural changes for overseas locations. Legislative changes will not provide a quick answer, as legislation is never immediate. Hospital and installation overseas culture change to providing paid positions to military spouses instead of relying on a large volunteer force would pave the way to change. This would require the Defense Health Agency (DHA) to change policies on hiring military spouses overseas and allowing spouses to bid on positions as their businesses or expand the contractors and government service positions. The DHA plans to lower the number of non-active duty jobs in both CONUS and OCONUS. This change would also require increasing the minimum wage in overseas locations to match the stateside minimum wage. It would require an open conversation among military families, commanders, and leaders who can affect change. If the military and government agencies approached these changes, it would increase family satisfaction and may increase recruitment when numbers at low. The reality there is not a “quick fix,” but an openness to discussion and change are the first steps.