The Relocation Blues

The Relocation Blues

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fter 12 moves in the last 12 years, Francesca Kelly has learned a hard truth about relocating for the federal government: No matter how much you prepare, it's never easy.

"I thought it would [get easier], but it doesn't at all," says Kelly, the wife of a Foreign Service officer and the editor of The Spouses' Underground Newsletter, an independent publication for Foreign Service spouses. "You know you have to get organized ahead of time, but the last weeks are pretty much always a nightmare."

The car has to be sold, the house has to be rented, bank accounts have to be closed, pets have to be shipped. And then there is the multitude of tiny, but critical, decisions that need to be made: "You find three puzzle pieces [when you're packing]," says Kelly. "Should you spend time looking for the rest of the pieces, or should you just throw them out?"

It's true that the federal government provides its employees with relocation allowances, language training and designated transportation services. "They expedite everything for you. They give you someone to call," observes Jim Murphy, a State Department employee who moved to Moscow with his family in July. Still, when Government Executive caught up with Murphy one week before his departure and asked what preparations he had left to do, Murphy rolled his eyes. "Everything," he said. "Luckily, my wife's doing a lot of it."

Therein lie two more truths about moving for the federal government: First, the families of federal employees do not merely accompany them, they do much of the work. Second, when it comes down to the wire, you're on your own.

Relocation Reforms

Why do even veteran movers find relocating such an ordeal? One reason is that every move is different. It's easy to devise coping strategies when travel is routine: A three-day temporary duty trip means one suit, a Tom Clancy novel and a small carry-on. But each time a federal employee relocates, says Ray Leki, director of the State Department's Overseas Briefing Center in Arlington, Va., chances are they will be at a different stage of their life-single, married, raising a family-and their needs and concerns will have changed.

At the beginning of Francesca Kelly's husband's Foreign Service career, for example, the Kellys did not have children. Now they have four. "With each additional kid, it's that many more people pulled out of their lives," says Kelly. "And they all need different things."

Federal travel regulations make moving even tougher. Relocation regulations are dense, sometimes counterintuitive and always changing. Change can be good, however. Seeking to save money anywhere they can, agencies and the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program (JFMIP), an interagency group, are exploring opportunities to reduce relocation travel costs. It turns out that many cost-cutting maneuvers also improve the relocation process for employees. For example, in 1994, the Social Security Administration (SSA) piloted a Relocation Home Marketing Incentive Program to see if it could encourage more transferring employees to sell their homes themselves. (The SSA, like most federal agencies, offers its transferring employees the option of having a contractor market their homes for them. The agency pays the contractors' fees, which can be substantial.)

The SSA offered a cash incentive of $2,500 to each transferring employee who sold and closed on his or her home in connection with a change of station. In the first year of the program, the agency saved $930,000 on contractor fees, and 92 transferees walked away $2,500 richer. In July, Congress enacted legislation that will allow other agencies to authorize similar home marketing incentives.

In another cost-cutting maneuver than helps employees, some agencies have decided that the 30 days advance notice for relocation suggested in GSA's Federal Travel Regulations is not enough time. Observing that the more time an employee has to plan for relocation, the lower the relocation costs, they've instituted longer notification periods of 120 to 180 days. As a result, temporary housing and storage costs have declined, along with employee stress levels.

The military services are trying to cut relocation costs by encouraging consecutive assignments in certain geographic locations. In October 1995, the commandant of the Marine Corps ordered personnel managers to increase the number of enlisted personnel assigned to consecutive tours in three regions-North Carolina, Southern California and the Washington, D.C., area. The Marine Corps saves money by reducing the number of moves for which it has to foot the bill, and the quality of life of its employees improves.

Agencies are recognizing that relocation travel is not a process that only affects the federal employee. "If the family is unhappy, this could affect the employee's productivity," says Maureen Johnston, information assistant at the State Department's Overseas Briefing Center. One of the JFMIP's Relocation Travel Improvement Team's recommendations is that agencies be given discretionary authority to pay for employment assistance-such as resume printing, career counseling and job placement fees-for relocating spouses. Some American embassies abroad assign personnel the task of expediting the paperwork for spouses' local work permits.

Still, the extent to which many spouses are involved in the logistics of moving has yet to be sufficiently recognized by most agencies. In the fall 1995 edition of The Spouses' Underground Newsletter, Lois Phalen writes about the frustration caused by her unofficial status in the moving process when her Foreign Service husband was assigned to Frankfurt, Germany, in 1995: "I tried to change the moving date that I had arranged with the moving company. I was told, however, that any change had to be authorized by the State Department and of course I could not talk to our personnel technician (as I am the eligible family member [not the employee]). It is the difficulty not being able to talk to personnel myself or any number of offices that makes moving so difficult. Virtually everything has to be filtered through my husband, who has plenty of other distractions."

Mental Preparation

While employee- and family-friendly regulations help, moving will never be easy. It requires employees to rip their houses apart, bid farewell to family and friends, and head off into the great unknown. Many federal employees underestimate the amount of mental preparation they-and their families-need to do in order to manage the unavoidable emotional turmoil.

The U.S. government will ship a federal employee's household effects to their destination, but it's up to the employee and their family to decide which state of disarray they prefer: Do they ship their goods early and camp out here or ship their goods late and camp out there?

Kelly sides with packing out early. "A good piece of advice someone once gave me was to send your air freight early because you're going to need your stuff more at the new post than at this end," she says.

The Military Personnel and Civilian Employees' Claims Act of 1964 does not provide full coverage against loss and or damage to property. Federal employees must determine how much private insurance they need in order to adequately protect their belongings.

And federal employees have to collect information to mentally prepare them and their families for the move. "Network with people who have been where you're going," says Barbara Jacquin, a State Department employee who moves to Burkina Faso this month. The information center at the Overseas Briefing Center maintains a file of people who have recently returned from abroad and are willing to answer questions about their last post. The center also stocks yearbooks from overseas schools, culture guides and country briefing boxes which contain maps and information on housing, medical facilities and local shopping. This information is provided for all federal government employees and their families who are heading overseas, not just State Department employees.

The Kelly family expects to move again next year, and Francesca Kelly vows to be more relaxed. "The packers pack up what they see," she says. "So the worst that can happen is they'll pack up a garbage can with garbage in it, or something else you don't want to bring. You can deal with it at the other end."

For information on subscribing to The Spouse's Underground Newsletter, please e-mail Francesca Kelly at fkellysun@aol.com, or check out the SUN website at http://www.thesun.org.

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