A military spouse looks over current positions available under the Direct Hiring Authority program at a job fair held at Ramstein Air Base, March 3, 2023.

A military spouse looks over current positions available under the Direct Hiring Authority program at a job fair held at Ramstein Air Base, March 3, 2023. (Jordan Lazaro/U.S. Air Force)

Emmalee Gruesen considers herself a “a unicorn” among military spouses working for the federal government. She’s been able to keep steady employment as a program analyst with the Navy over the last eight years despite four moves with her husband, a naval officer.

Instead, many military spouses have been forced to resign their federal jobs because of their spouses’ transfers, losing out on benefits that accrue over years of continuous service.

To help those not so lucky, Gruesen teamed up with Army spouse Maria Donnelly and found a bipartisan team in Congress to introduce legislation this week that will require federal agencies to use already existing policies around remote work and non-pay status to support military spouses who want to build a career in federal service.

The Resilient Employment and Authorization Determination to Increase National Employment of Serving Spouses Act, or READINESS Act, is spearheaded by Reps. Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, and Don Bacon, R-Neb. They’ve gained 10 cosponsors and expect to introduce the bill Tuesday, according to Crockett’s office.

“Right now, we are losing some of our best federal employees at an alarming rate,” said Crockett, a member of the House Oversight Committee. “We should be doing everything we can to retain these patriotic federal employees, not needlessly pushing them out the door.”

The bill allows for military spouses preparing to move with their service member to request individual determination about whether their job can be completed remotely on a temporary basis, be reassigned to the new duty station, or be transferred to a comparable job.

If none of these options fit, the bill allows the employee to go into non-pay status. The spouse would retain their nonfinancial benefits while their employer would get to fill the position. The measure would also apply to spouses of Foreign Service employees.

“This is a no-cost way to advance military spouse employment, because all it requires is policy direction,” Donnelly said. “It’s aligning everyone on the same set of rules.”

The non-pay status is important, she said, because it can help an employee retain their security clearance, be hired into a new role more quickly, and allow them to reach the threshold required to be vested into a retirement program. It also invests in building a career, not just finding a spouse a job, the women said. 

Unemployment among military spouses is about 21%, according to the Defense Department. It’s hovered around that mark for more than a decade, despite millions of dollars spent to reduce the figure. 

The White House estimated that about 16,000 military spouses work for the federal government, but Gruesen said the statistic isn’t well-tracked.

Federal service is a good starting point to tackle spousal unemployment because everywhere there’s a military base, there’s a federal job, she said.

Two-thirds of military spouses lose their job when they change duty stations, according to research by Blue Star Families.

“If we are ever going to end the military spouse unemployment crisis — which itself undermines our national security — we must find ways to retain military spouse employees through a military move, while proving this is both good for military families and good for business,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO of Blue Star Families.

Other military and veteran service organizations supporting the legislation include the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Military Officers Association of America and the Military Family Advisory Network.

Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network, said the legislation would help “remove undue barriers to employment for military spouses” and give the government a way “to retain the immense talent this community brings to the workforce.”

“More specifically, the READINESS Act presents a tangible set of actions that will better recognize and support military spouses in their career journeys and streamline interagency collaboration—ultimately delivering on promises to better care for our men and women in uniform and the families who serve alongside them,” Razsadin said in a statement.

It would also encourage retention, according to Bacon, chairman of a quality-of-life subpanel in the House Armed Services Committee.

“Spouse employment is one of the top issues service members consider when making their decision to continue to serve in the military,” he said. “My wife Angie packed, unpacked, and moved our family 16 times during my nearly 30 years in the Air Force, putting her career second. These federally-employed spouses support their significant others just like my wife did and we should guarantee they have the flexibility to remain in the federal service when forced to relocate through no choice of their own.”

Crockett previously presented the READINESS Act as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, but it did not make House’s final draft.

Gruesen and Donnelly said they hope the simplicity of the bill will garner more support this time around.

“There’s all these intractable issues that we know the military community faces from housing to childcare … and the one thing that kind of can cushion the blow on every single one is having a second income,” Donnelly said.

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