Hiring Freeze Forces Military Spouses to Make Tough Choices

Pentagon says it's looking at potential solutions for civilians blocked from new jobs when their spouses relocate.

Bethyn Sundbeck was driving in Utah near Hill Air Force Base with her nine-month old son when she got into a car accident. Her husband was thousands of miles away, en route to his new installation in Alabama.

Sundbeck spent hours in the emergency room. The injuries were minor, but the experience was distressing.

“It was the most difficult time I’ve experienced since becoming a parent,” she said. That day marked the beginning of five weeks she and her infant son spent away from her husband.

Sundbeck had decided to stay back at her civilian position on the base in Utah. In the past when her husband had moved, she had followed him across the country to take new career civil service jobs at the new installations. This time that was not possible, thanks to President Trump’s hiring freeze.

Sundbeck’s dilemma was one that many military spouses now find themselves in: Separate from their families to keep their jobs, or stay together while sacrificing an income. Management had indicated to Sundbeck, a seven-year Air Force civilian recruited out of college who had worked her way from a GS-7 intern to a GS-13 first-line supervisor in logistics management, that she would have a position at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Ala. Because she had yet to receive a formal offer by Jan. 22 -- the cutoff in Trump’s freeze memorandum -- there was nothing her bosses could do for her.

As a military spouse, Sundbeck is eligible for priority placement, a status that helped her find jobs in previous moves. Without a carve-out for individuals in her position, she opted to stay behind for five weeks to earn some extra paychecks and to hit the important one-year mark in her new position. During that period, she and her husband were forced to make mortgage payments on their Utah house -- which they were trying to sell -- and the new home they bought in Alabama. The Air Force moved 90 percent of their belongings to Maxwell when her husband left, leaving her with four plates and a borrowed crib for her newborn son.

“It was awful,” Sundbeck said. “People have been through a lot worse, but it’s a significant impact.”

Another military spouse, who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution for speaking out, said she actually received a tentative offer at her husband’s new installation in Ohio the day Trump’s freeze went into effect. Because the offer had not been finalized by going through the formal human resources process, however, it did not withstand the hiring moratorium.

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This will be her fourth move with her husband, and the first in which she did not have a civilian position lined up when she arrived. The Air Force had been in hiring freezes in the past, but they had worked with her to help arrange a new job anyway. As of now, she is still deciding how to proceed.

“I’ll probably stay here and not give up the job and let the husband and kids go,” she said. She, too, will survive with a bare bones set of belongings, with nearly everything shipping off with her husband as part of the military’s relocation services. She said she fears her husband will deploy, leaving her without a choice in the matter, as she will have to go be with her children.

Johnny Michael, a Defense Department spokesman, said the Pentagon was aware of the problem.

“We understand that this is a challenge, and are looking at potential solutions,” Michael said.

Kelly Hruska, the government relations director for the National Military Family Association, said the hiring freeze presented an opportunity for military spouses. The spouses, she said, should broaden their prospects beyond just federal employment.

“The hiring freeze is an opportunity to expand your job search criteria,” Hruska said. She acknowledged some situations will require difficult decisions, such as which member of a separated family will receive the Basic Allowance for Housing. Even for those who will only consider federal jobs, she stressed, the freeze is temporary.

“It’s not the hardest freeze,” Hruska said. “It’s not the longest. We’ll get through it.”

Sundbeck, who met her husband while working at the Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, called that advice “offensive,” saying it contradicts the entire Air Force ethos of caring for the Air Force family. She explained that looking for work outside of the government would make it harder to find a job the next time her husband is reassigned in three years.

“I’m caught between a rock and a hard place,” she said. The Air Force could create an exemption for her position, but current guidance would require that to go all the way up to the service’s secretary and as Sundbeck put it, “No one is going to do that for a lowly GS-13.”

Trump has assigned Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and the head of the Office of Personnel Management -- currently acting Director Kathleen McGettigan, as the president has not nominated anyone to the position -- to issue a long-term federal workforce attrition plan by April 22. Per Trump’s memo, the freeze is set to expire once that plan is implemented. The president said of the freeze this week, however: “Part of our commitment is to continue to do that for the American taxpayer.”

Sundbeck joined her husband in Montgomery on Monday. For now, she sits at home on leave without pay with her son, who is now 10 months old, hoping the government will allow her to go back to work.