Feds to make moving government jobs abroad easier for military spouses

by Vern Evans

Military spouses working for federal agencies may soon find it easier to take their jobs with them when their families move overseas.

Pentagon and State Department officials on April 17 are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding that will remove many of the barriers to remote work overseas for military spouses, Sheila Casey, executive director of Joining Forces, said Tuesday at a conference hosted by the Association of Defense Communities. Joining Forces is a White House initiative to support military families.

The memorandum aims to improve the Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas (DETO) program, as required by President Joe Biden’s June 2023 executive order outlining steps to enhance economic prospects for military and veterans spouses, caregivers and survivors.

The policy change will address many of the State Department’s concerns about residential security requirements for federal employees working overseas, Casey said. If successful, the update would expand military spouses’ opportunities to earn income and avoid massive work-related expenses they may incur when trying to telework from abroad.

All federal employees are prohibited from teleworking overseas without approval from their agency and the State Department. But a number of military spouses who have moved overseas on permanent change-of-station orders have been denied the ability to work for a federal agency overseas under the DETO program, or have seen those agreements rescinded — costing tens of thousands of dollars in lost wages.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that this will be a step in the right direction,” said Sue Hoppin, founder and president of the National Military Spouse Network, which has advocated for changes to the DETO program for years. “We all know that removing the barriers to military spouses working overseas won’t involve just any one solution. We’d be interested in seeing more data.”

For example, Hoppin said, will the change result in more military spouses being granted the ability to telework overseas?

“We hope that agencies will start tracking this type of information so we can start identifying some best practices,” she said.

Some spouses previously interviewed by Military Times have said military families were told to foot the bill for security requirements for federal telework overseas, such as bomb- and shatter-proof glass, specific door locks and an alarm system to notify the State Department if there is a break-in. One spouse said she spent $15,000 on required security upgrades.

It’s unclear what the guidelines are for when an agency pays for required security upgrades to a residence, or whether the memorandum will address the issue.

It’s unclear how many military spouses would be affected by the upcoming policy change. Some spouses have told Military Times they estimate that group numbers in the hundreds.

The federal government has sought to remedy the myriad issues that complicate military spouse employment through a number of initiatives.

The Defense Department, which provides a range of education and employment resources for its approximately 580,000 active duty military spouses, has funded the Military Spouse Career Accelerator Pilot, a 12-week program in which DOD pays the stipends of military spouses at civilian employers who may offer them a full-time job at the end of the fellowship.

In 2023, the first year of the three-year pilot program, more than 400 spouses were placed into fellowships, said Liz O’Brien, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes, which administers the program for DOD. Eighty-five percent of the spouses were offered employment by their sponsor company.

Another 200 spouses have been placed into fellowships in the first quarter of 2024, O’Brien said at the Association of Defense Communities conference.

Citing early indicators of its success, congressional lawmakers now recommend expanding the fellowship program and making it permanent as part of a slate of military quality-of-life improvements proposed by the House Armed Services Committee panel on Thursday. The proposal notes that the average salary offered by employers as a result of the 2023 fellowships exceeded $65,500.

Local communities are important to the success of the spouse employment effort, O’Brien said, and encouraged businesses to apply to participate in the fellowship program.

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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