President Joe Biden speaks to service members and their families in support of Joining Forces, the initiative to support military and veteran families, caregivers, and survivors, on June 9, 2023 at Fort Liberty, N.C.

President Joe Biden speaks to service members and their families in support of Joining Forces, the initiative to support military and veteran families, caregivers, and survivors, on June 9, 2023 at Fort Liberty, N.C. Eros Hoagland/Getty Images

‘Flexibility’ Will Be Key to Agencies Retaining Military Spouses, Biden Says

President Biden signed an executive order last week tasking agencies with developing new plans to recruit and retain spouses of military service members and said telework will play a key role.

President Biden last week signed an executive order aimed at improving federal agencies’ ability to recruit and retain the spouses and survivors of military service members and other military caregivers, including by revamping a program allowing some employees of domestic agencies to telework while overseas.

Improving the job opportunities of military spouses has been a priority for both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations in recent years. In 2018, then-President Trump signed his own executive order on the issue, encouraging agencies to promote the use of existing hiring incentives to hire spouses of military personnel and develop new strategies to remove barriers to spousal employment. And Biden’s 2021 executive order aimed at promoting diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in federal employment includes military spouses alongside women, people of color, and other demographic groups as an “underserved community.”

The continued focus on improving outcomes for military spouses is simple: While the monthly unemployment rate as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in May was only 3.7%, it is 21% for the spouses of active-duty military service members, in part because of service members’ need to relocate periodically. Similarly, one in five military families report that difficulty in finding spousal employment as a reason for considering leaving the armed forces.

Biden’s order tasks the Office of Personnel Management and Office of Management and Budget, in consultation with other departments, to develop a new government-wide strategic plan for hiring and retaining military spouses, requires agencies to highlight which job openings are eligible for noncompetitive hiring provisions for military spouses via USAJOBS, and revamps the rules around when employees of domestic federal agencies may telework from outside the United States.

"This new executive order establishes the most comprehensive set of administrative actions in our nation’s history to support the economic security of military families, veterans’ spouses, caregivers and survivors,” Biden said Friday before signing the new edict. “[Those] actions boil down into three main goals: more flexibility, more support and more resources.”

The prescribed changes to the government’s overseas telework policy, known as Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas or DETO, would establish “common standards” for the program, as well as to create a standardized and centralized system for applicants and case processing. But Biden said agencies also can do more right now to retain employees who are military spouses.

“I’ll start with the flexibility piece,” Biden said Friday. “This executive order encourages all federal agencies to do more to retain military spouses through flexible policies. Policies like granting leave when their partner has to [permanently change their station], improving remote work opportunities for military spouses, including when they’re stationed overseas. And it’s just common sense to keep families together. It keeps a talented workforce together. And, look, it enables our government to carry out its global mission.”

The order also looks to expand military families’ access to affordable child care, tasking the Office of Personnel Management and the secretary of Defense with creating flexible spending accounts for military families to use on child care by Jan. 1, 2024, as well as “expand pathways” for military spouses to serve as child care workers on military installations.

“This executive order means more resources, especially when it comes to improving military families’ access to quality, dependable and affordable child care,” Biden said. “Today we’re accelerating the implementation of the dependent care flexible spending account, which will give military families the option to receive a pre-tax benefit for daycare, preschool and summer camps, and much more.”