The Army at the end of this month will stop subsidies for civilian employees enrolling their kids in child care, instead shifting those resources to military families.
Currently, civilian employees without access to on-base child care can receive up to $1,500 per month for each child younger than 13 years old to send their kids to an accredited center. In a letter to parents using the program earlier this year, the Army said its Fee Assistance Program is “being reshaped to prioritize resources to soldiers and their families,” meaning civilians will no longer be eligible for the subsidies starting March 1. Civilian families with children already enrolled in the program prior to that date will be grandfathered in and continue to receive the benefits.
While they can continue receiving the subsidies for now, impacted families are still concerned about the fallout from the new policy. Any civilian who moves to a new duty location will automatically lose those benefits, which employees say will stymie their career growth.
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In a memorandum the Army issued last year, the military branch said its priority was ensuring uniformed personnel can focus on their missions.
“I am committed to taking care of soldiers and their families and reducing the burden of military life the Army places on them,” Secretary Mark Esper wrote. “Soldiers must be confident that their spouses and children are supported so they can focus on their mission.”
Esper added that “every additional dollar” that goes to subsidizing civilian families’ child care—“especially for high-income families”—is money that is diverted away from military families. The new policy will free up funding for “higher priority Army programs.”
Kristian Mickelson, a hydraulic engineer at the Army Corps of Engineers' Seattle division, receives $700 per month from his agency to send his two-year-old to child care. His wife is currently pregnant with their second child and due March 21. They are set to miss the cutoff for the subsidy by three weeks, which Mickelson estimates will cost him $50,000 by the time the child goes to school.
"We've been planning financially to have the subsidy in place [since] we got pregnant," said Mickelson, who found out about the new policy in December. "It's not something you can plan for super well in three months."
Mickelson said he and his wife actually talked to their doctor about inducing an early birth, but decided against it.
"I never thought I would have to contemplate that question," he said.
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents about 100 impacted employees, wrote a letter to leaders of the House Armed Services Committee on Friday asking them to “urge the Army to reverse course on this misguided effort.” They highlighted the employees stationed in high-cost areas like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., who will particularly feel the pinch of the new policy. Army Corps of Engineers employees stationed in New York City pay between $21,840 and $25,548 annually per child enrolled in the Fed Kids center at a federal building there, the union cited as an example.
“When you multiply that by the number of children a family may have it quickly becomes evident that, based on current federal salaries, it will be uneconomical for workers with children to continue working at the district,” the group wrote. It added that employees will now face incentives not to take temporary duty assignments that could advance their career out of fear of losing their benefits.
“Army civilians support Army war and peace time efforts abroad and domestically with technical expertise, and often through deployments which carry risk to safety and human life,” IFPTE said. “Like our active duty Army military personnel, these civilian families also need and deserve the critical family readiness programs that the Army provides.”
Jason Ide, whose wife works for the Army Corps in New York City, has one kid at a child care facility and receives a subsidy. He and his wife were planning to have a second child, but they are now second-guessing that given the new expenses.
"It’s impacting family planning decision, decisions on where to live, everything," Ide said. "We want to keep this job and we want to be a part of it, but the subsidy is what’s responsible for that continuance."
The Navy also offers subsidies to civilians for child care, though the Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard do not. An official at the Army Installation Management Command was unable to answer questions about potential hardship caused by the policy in time for publication.
Mickelson said he expects to scrape by, but that may not be the case for all of his coworkers in the increasingly expensive Seattle region.
"We will manage to make ends meet," he said. His colleagues, however "will consider delaying that decision [to have kids] or going elsewhere."