Flag Day is not only the day the Stars and Stripes became our flag, it is also the birthday of an institution that defends the freedoms the flag represents–the Army. But what if the government required you to move, and the state you moved to wouldn’t allow you to practice your profession? When military spouses move to a new state, their occupational licenses don’t transfer–which means months of unemployment and financial hardship for military families. These rules not only go against the spirit of our country, but they also threaten military readiness and contribute to the recruiting and retention crisis.
A federal law, which passed with bipartisan support in Congress earlier this year, will provide some relief by requiring state licensing authorities to recognize a professional license from another state when a spouse moves on military orders. This is a giant leap forward for military families who have been clamoring for reform–but thousands of military spouses could still be excluded from the labor force if states don’t cut out the red tape.
Michelle Wintering and her family know this all too well. A speech-language pathologist and Army spouse living in central Texas, Wintering lost roughly 17 months of practicing as she waited on state licensing boards to process applications over a five-year period. As her family moved from Colorado to Texas to Kentucky to Kansas and back again to Texas for her husband’s military assignments, she lived at the mercy of state licensing boards and a complex web of tedious rules.
The result? Despite their original plans to stay in the Army until retirement at 20 years, her husband has decided to leave later this year. With military recruitment already at record lows, this type of red tape is a danger to our national security.
Military spouses experience unemployment up to six times the national unemployment average. One in five active-duty spouses is unemployed. According to Blue Star Families’ 2021 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, two-thirds of active-duty spouse respondents who are employed report they are underemployed.
We can and must do better for our military families. As it stands, when military spouses arrive at their new duty stations, their professional licenses will be recognized–but they will still have to live at the mercy of state licensing boards, which have disparate requirements. Even with the new law, military families must submit to the “authority of the licensing authority in the new jurisdiction for the purposes of practice, discipline, and fulfillment of any continuing education requirements.”
Applications could take months to process, leaving them jobless and anxious, and facing food insecurity. Others might have to log additional hours of “continuing education” and repeat this with every relocation order. And still, others will have to pay hefty application fees, creating an undue burden for military families already drained by financial stress as they serve our country.
The most common career fields for military spouses are education and healthcare, which often require state-issued licenses that are not transferable to a new state. Spouses who are teachers and nurses–fields that are desperate for qualified personnel–can’t work in their fields until they are licensed in the new state, which can take months.
At my organization, Blue Star Families, we have heard horror stories. In one case, there was a teacher who had to stop teaching because maintaining her license was too much work and too expensive as she moved from state to state.
Heather Campbell, a registered dietitian and military spouse stationed in Alaska, told us that the frequent moves and strict licensure standards have made it impossible to “maintain adequate employment that would cover the cost of childcare for three small children.” Heather was forced to pay “thousands of dollars of professional maintenance expenses out of pocket.” It has taken a toll on her mental health and the “overall well-being” of her family.
The Department of Defense and many states have tried to find solutions to this problem, including creating interstate compacts that allow spouses to practice in their new home state without obtaining a new license. Unfortunately, interstate compacts only apply to one profession at a time and each state must create its own law that establishes each compact. This is clearly an inefficient way to solve the problem.
States should consider following the example of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, an early leader on the issue who signed a state bill in 2021 that expedites occupational licenses for military spouses.
It is imperative that governors and other state officials finish the last mile of work to help create sustainable family incomes, while also serving as a magnet for their state’s economy, especially during this time of labor shortages, states competing for talent, and a massive military recruitment shortage.
Kathy Roth-Douquet is the CEO of Blue Star Families, the nation’s largest chapter-based nonprofit serving military and Veteran families. She is also a former Defense official, author, attorney, and spouse of a 30-year Marine Corps Veteran.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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