Senators introduce bills to help military spouses with employment, loans

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The U.S. saw major successes in cutting veteran unemployment over the past eight years, now members of Congress are focusing their attention on another military group: spouses.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is introducing a bill he hopes will give military spouses more opportunities to gain employment, despite having to move regularly with their significant other.

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At the same time, Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) introduced a bill last week to make it easier for military spouses who are teachers to obtain loan forgiveness even if they have to move school districts.

The military spouse unemployment rate rose to 30 percent in 2017, according to the Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle Survey.

“We think the reason for that is so many spouses had just given up looking for work. Unemployment means actively looking for work in the last four weeks. We think that the amount of attention Blue Star Families and our partners have been able to give to this topic has emboldened more military spouses to think that perhaps they could work and probably led them to seek it,” Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families said in November 2017.

Kaine met with military spouses and employers last October and said the meeting was part of the reason for the legislation he is proposing.

“We haven’t specifically worked on military spouse employment issues before. I heard that from the employers, I thought about it in terms of my own focus on issues in the committees,” Kaine said. “Getting an interview and having an employer look at you and say, ‘Wow, you’re really qualified, but boy you’re probably going to have to move in a year and a half maybe I should hire someone who is going to be here longer.”

Kaine’s bill modifies the federal hiring authority so federal agencies can hire military spouses faster.

“In a lot of areas, military bases and around the country and around the world, some of the best jobs right where the bases are, are federal jobs. Federal agencies that are co-located or close to military bases. We want to create expedited hiring authority for military spouses, much like we do with veterans to enable them to get these good jobs more quickly,” Kaine said in a Feb. 6 call with reporters.

Kaine’s bill also focuses on an issue near and dear to many military families and that is childcare.

The Blue Star Families survey notes that the two-thirds of military families said they could not reliably find the childcare they needed.

Fifty six percent of families said the Defense Department does not provide adequate support to help children cope with the unique challenges associated with military life.

“Again and again we hear from these spouses that the lack of childcare puts a big burden in their way in terms of finding employment. Childcare is so expensive that the childcare is going to cost more than your salary then you are not going to work, you’re not going to maintain your career, your profession during that time,” Kaine said.

Kaine’s bill instructs DoD to examine ways to increase the number of cleared childcare providers while still adhering to safety standards. The bill also requires DoD to assess whether each duty station is allotted the right number of childcare subsidies for the number of families requesting them.

Kaine’s bill also opens up some transition services to military spouses. The bill opens the Military One Source resource available to spouses for one year.

Military One Source is a 24/7 resource for education, personal finances and other employment assistance.

The bill opens up transition assistance programs to military spouses as well. The programs offer classes on financial planning and family readiness.

Kaine said he has not talked to Cardin and Cornyn about merging his bill with their loan forgiveness bill.

Kaine said he does want to work with the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee to get his bill folded into the 2019 defense authorization bill.

“This should not be an issue that should be partisan at all. After being on the Armed Services Committee for five years now, I know the issues where there tends to be partisan difference and I also know the issues where there’s not,” Kaine said.

Congress already gave military spouses a break in the 2018 defense authorization act when it comes to licensing.

The law provides up to $500 to families for spouses to get licensed in their occupation after a station change.

“If a spouse works in South Carolina and moves to Virginia and incurs up to $500 in relicensing or certification costs, the committee would authorize up to $500 to be reimbursed for that,” said a House Armed Services Committee aide.

There would be no limit to the number of times a spouse could use the benefit, as long as it is a permanent move.

Lawmakers have struggled in the past to deal with licensing issues with military families.

In 2016, all 50 states eased requirements for military spouses whose careers required professional licenses.