Impact of the Family Member Hiring Freeze: Additional Feedback from the Field

The FSJ has determined that all responses should be published without attribution due to sensitivities in a fluid situation. All respondents are known to the Journal. Thank you to all who shared their stories.

—The Editors

EFMs are cost-effective

My spouse is a highly educated and skilled professional who has dedicated her life to support the U.S. Department of State Foreign Service. She is a member in good standing of the Foreign Service Family Reserve Corps with an active Top Secret security clearance. She has served in nearly every aspect of the Foreign Service. She was an econ/commercial specialist, a consular associate, an HR EPAP, administrative assistant, etc. She speaks several languages, including Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish and Portuguese. All of these resources are lost to the State Department until the hiring freeze on EFM positions is rescinded.

Based on the fact that there is absolutely no chance the Department of State can take advantage of her skills and experience, I cannot see myself bidding for an overseas assignment again anytime soon. I will bid solely on Washington positions so she can take a federal government position with one of the other agencies no longer hamstrung by the hiring freeze. The department will lose the years of experience, training and money they have already invested in my spouse.

I am at a loss as to how freezing EFM positions saves the State Department money. When we hire an EFM we do not have to pay for additional housing, utilities, health care, moving costs, school for kids, R&Rs—and the list goes on. For each EFM position that has to be filled by a direct hire we pay the full gambit of additional direct-hire costs and benefits. The EFM only costs us the salary, which is usually mush less than even many of our locally employed (LE) staff make. EFMs are actually a more cost-effective solution than direct hires or LE staff and most of them have or can be granted a security clearance.

We serve all over the world in a lot of difficult and dangerous places. We don’t have a military base with housing, commissary, movie theater and bowling alley. Our families follow us and support us and give up lucrative careers to allow us to serve our country. And, more importantly, they look forward to supporting it, as well, in any way they can. EFMs are as important to the success of our missions abroad as any direct hire employee. We need to give them the respect they deserve and take advantage of all they bring to the table.

Our family is separated due to the freeze

“Bye-bye,” my 10-month-old daughter squeaked. Her first words. And my heart broke a little.

The baby and I left Washington for post six months ago, sure her father would be close behind; but I was wrong. He’s still in D.C., unable to find work at post and unwilling to join us with no work to fill his day and no sense of professional independence.

We’re both youngish, ambitious professionals (a predominant profile of today’s FS family), and we agreed this FS life might work for our family under one condition—that we could both find meaningful work, however we might define it. With the hiring freeze, this has proven impossible.

I feel horrible about the fact that I seem to have sold our FS life to him with an untenable or even false sense of optimism. Then again, I’m doubtful that a multilingual lawyer with an additional master’s degree in international policy has nothing of value to add to our mission. And he is anything but a welfare case.

We bear the expense of two homes and costly flights, without SMA [separate maintenance allowance], watching our nest egg dwindle before our eyes. As our little family nears a half-year apart, our daughter has changed so much. Today, she teeters on the edge of taking her first steps and I know she’ll do it without my husband here to see it. And my heart will break again. I’m losing hope—we just want to serve our country and be together, but the fight gets a little harder to wage with each day.

People will leave the Service

The EFM hiring freeze will have many impacts on FS personnel and families. The obvious is the possible financial hit that families can encounter as local jobs are not nearly as available as people like to think. The second major issue is that the spouses feel less wanted or desired, and that actively disengages them from the mission. This will, in turn, lead to family morale issues, which will lead to more curtailments and higher attrition rates from the Foreign Service due to elevated family stresses.

Let’s crunch the numbers

I encourage AFSA to conduct or support a study into the cost-effectiveness of EFM employment. Given the relatively low salaries of EFMs, their limited benefits and the fact that their health care and housing already is covered by their spouses’ employment, I suspect employing them is very cost-effective.

Such a study could help demonstrate to the cost-cutters that the current freeze is penny wise and pound foolish, in addition to having a negative impact on morale.

Impacting our ability to retire

The EFM hiring freeze is disheartening and hurtful. My EFM spouse has worked at every post, possesses a Top Secret clearance and offers tons of valuable experience in multiple sections. We are transferring this summer and never dreamed that my spouse would not be able to seek work as an EFM.

It’s our retirement tour; we need the second income and my spouse’s ability to continue making contributions to retirement and the TSP [Thrift Savings Plan]. Family members usually give up their careers and make sacrifices to serve our country alongside the direct hire employee in foreign lands. They should be given the opportunity to be employed and contribute to the mission.

EFM jobs are not just a matter of “giving them something to do.” They are vital to mission operations as well as family morale and welfare.

Stop whining

Perhaps a freeze is what we needed. In one of our posts, the management officer created a position for his wife. I constantly hear about a deep talent pool. All I can see is inadequate, lazy and complaining EFMs as far as the eye can see. The best part is that EFMs roll around acting like employment is a given right.

Waiting to start work

I’m a first tour officer with USAID. My wife was hired as a consular assistant in January 2017, just before the freeze. While they are allowing her background check to (very slowly) move along, she has no start date. She’s been waiting for more than six months to start work as a consular assistant, and it’s very frustrating. This situation is demoralizing for both of us.

We strongly urge State Department leadership to follow the rest of the federal government and lift this ridiculous freeze, at least to the extent that EFMs who were already hired can start working.

Staying in D.C. this time around

I am bidding on the summer 2018 cycle. We will focus on D.C. jobs or overseas positions with a summer 2019 ETA, as we cannot comfortably move overseas at this time without knowing what will happen to EFM employment. While EFM employment is not the only option for FS family members, it is a strong possibility (and at many posts it is the only option). Without having this option on the table, we cannot take the chance of losing an income and a professional career for my spouse with our next FS transfer.

Do they even care?

My wife has a position at post. But after she waited for almost a year for a Secret security clearance update, the executive order hiring freeze went into effect. One week prior to her clearance update being approved, we found out the job was frozen.

We are demoralized. She cannot work, and we are feeling the financial burden on our family as we truly rely on that additional money. We are considering leaving post early. Either we will return to the United States so she can work, or I will go to a critical priority country (CPC) to offset these costs.

EFM jobs are critical to our ability to make ends meet. Additionally, the mission is really feeling the squeeze as critical positions for staff morale, such as the CLO [community liaison office coordinator], go unfilled.

I do not think the current administration realizes how important these jobs are to our families, who are also serving overseas. Do they even care?

Failure of the “family friendly” FS

The hiring freeze has prevented my wife from taking an EFM job she was “hired” for shortly after her arrival at post. The impact on our family income is measurable. The emotional impact on our family is not measurable, but it is no less devastating. We are serving at an extreme hardship post, and our thank you is nearly two years of lost salary and ruined morale.

There is another issue, though, and that is the length of time it takes to get clearances. The security clearance process is indefensibly slow, and neither The Bureau of Diplomatic Security nor the Bureau of Human Resources notified us when my wife’s clearance was finally granted—we only found out when we inquired to Washington yet again and found out her clearance had been granted a month earlier. My wife waited a year from when she was told she had the job until she was cleared to start—at which time the hiring freeze was in place.

The “family friendly” Foreign Service once again failed one of their families serving abroad.

It’s not about morale

I was crushed to see Donna Gorman’s piece [“Out in the Cold: Family Member Employment,” July-August 2017 FSJ]. The article deck ("Employing family members overseas isn’t just good for morale. It makes financial sense too, and helps keep our embassies functioning.") was the best part.

We have to acknowledge by now that no one cares about the morale piece of this; I assumed that was something that was forgotten from time to time in the trenches, but that folks higher up at AFSA and AAFSW knew it all too well.

Whether the EFM hiring freeze has been continued to encourage a drop in morale or simply in spite of one, I think it’s all too clear that EFMs feeling sad (“Happy Spouses Make Happy Posts”) or feeling like life is hard (“It’s Hard Out There for a Spouse”) is not the compelling argument for this building, this time, this administration.

The glue that holds us together

In my short career as a Foreign Service office management specialist, I have grown to recognize the invaluable role of EFMs. They are the glue that holds not only families together, but also post communities. I rely on EFMs in countless ways. And, while their professional abilities are not always used to the fullest, I am grateful that their commitment to family has allowed us to work alongside with them.

Barely a month into my new post, I have seen the impact that the hiring freeze is having. People are picking up the slack from unfilled positions; worry looms about how long it will last and what the future holds.

The freeze is short-sighted and wasteful

My husband has spent the past 10 years cultivating skills that are valuable to the embassy community—he has worked as a GSO [general services officer] and warranted contracting officer at more than one post. His skills are needed at our current post, but he is unable to accept a position that he was selected for due to the hiring freeze. It would be difficult for him to find a job on the local market, and it’s miserable for him to sit at home day after day with no employment prospects.

We question whether or not we should remain in the Foreign Service under the present conditions. I also wonder if the hiring freeze is an attempt to get officers to leave the Foreign Service on their own, avoiding a reduction in force (RIF) by reducing the workforce through job dissatisfaction instead.

It would be better for all and more economical for the U.S. government to invest in EFMs and ensure that this underutilized talent pool is trained to perform the specific functions needed at embassies. Keeping a significant group of people out of the government workforce is short-sighted and wasteful.

One FSO’s perspective…

When I was first hired into the Foreign Service there was a lot of reassurance about how familial harmony was a priority for the agency (I’m with USAID) because they know that this promotes retention of productive officers. My husband gave up his job to follow me.

After applying and being interviewed for several jobs with the mission, he was able to get a position. He was in the process of getting his clearance when the freeze took hold. The effect this loss of hope has had—not only on him but on our household—has been palpable. Our post is a difficult one in Africa. There are not a lot of jobs available outside of the mission, and the extremely restricted area in which we can travel makes even volunteer opportunities limited.

As the freeze continues, the likelihood of retaining career officers diminishes because many of us will put our families first. It is a true disservice to our country to lose qualified officers for this reason, especially when one considers the investment that the U.S. government has put into filling these positions.

…and her husband’s point of view

This life is so much harder than I ever thought it would be. The worst part about it isn’t the hiring freeze, it’s the people who keep saying it “must be nice not having to work.” It’s the loss of respect that I’ve felt so keenly from my family back home. It’s always feeling like I don’t have an equal voice in financial decisions because I’m not bringing in any money, and now have no prospect of doing so.

We’re a burden, and we’re reminded of that all the time. A part of the training my wife went through, on the day spouses were invited, was literally about how to get out of a conversation if you found yourself talking to someone who was “only an EFM.” I am not misusing quotation marks there. Why they would address something like that on the one day we were there I couldn’t guess, but it was the most real preparation for this life I got.

I never get to forget that I’m “only” an EFM. I never get to forget that I’m a “dependent.” My wife does her best, but we have strife coming from her feeling like everything is on her shoulders, and my feeling resented because the feeling of partnership keeps eroding.

The work that my wife is doing is literally changing lives and improving our crumbling global image. I don’t doubt for a second that she would walk away from doing what is literally lifesaving work to save our marriage. So, that’s the new burden unemployed EFMs are shouldering. We have to temper our frustration because all of us, and I mean all of us, believe so much in the work our partners are doing. We wouldn’t be in places like X if we didn’t.

The new, family-free Foreign Service

It’s clear that the EFM job freeze is intended to hasten downsizing in the State Department through attrition. For posts such as the one we’re heading to shortly, spouses have zero opportunity for employment on or off campus. The EFM edict cut off all options for my spouse. This has thrown havoc into our personal life as we had planned and hoped that we’d finally live and work in the same country at the same time.

I have been down the road of unaccompanied posts before. Previously, leadership had scant incentive to do more than offer hit-or-miss support on EFM issues at posts, and we all chased the same few available jobs. Leadership is now sending the clear message that diplomatic civilians will staff embassies in combat and hardship zones, without family members, for years on end. Most of us signed on not just to do a job but to demonstrate American values overseas. I’m not sure the “family-free, no personal life” value is one I want to convey.

Trouble for dual nationals

My spouse is a dual national of the country where we are stationed, has graduate degrees, and is fluent in English and the language at post, as well as other languages used in the region where we live. We thought these would be great advantages in applying for jobs here. My spouse is now looking for work on the local market. This frustrating experience has left my spouse isolated from the community.

We knew that EFM hiring would be challenging, and my spouse was willing to deal with that in order to support me in pursuing my dream career. However, the hiring freeze has made an already difficult situation even harder. The freeze is a poor choice in light of the vast number of talented individuals who are ready and willing to serve their country alongside their spouses.

Not only are EFMs already on travel orders at post with their housing and paperwork in order, but they are also often able to speak the language, are familiar with the department and the mission and could carry clearances from post to post. Economically and politically, they are an obvious resource, and it seems short-sighted to waste that talent pool.

Twelve years of service, halted by the freeze

Before the hiring freeze, I had 12 years of government service, mostly accumulated before my husband joined the Foreign Service. Knowing that employment opportunities existed at U.S. embassies offered hope that I could cobble together enough work to contribute financially to our family. I’m fortunate to have landed good jobs and grateful for the professional experience advancing mission and U.S. government priorities.

When our embassy required temporary duty (TDY) support during a presidential visit, I joined as an “emergency hire.” A colleague and I—two EFMs (gasp!)—coordinated transportation movements for the 600+ member delegation. Post management resources continue to be stretched supporting numerous trips by Cabinet secretaries, CODELS, senior officials and a recent VP visit.

Curtailing EFM employment is a disservice to a pool of experienced professionals who leave behind competitive positions yet remain in demand at overseas posts. Families understand sacrifice: personally, half of our tours have been hardship and PSP assignments. The continued employment uncertainty is a detriment to posts and to the families that serve.

Don’t forget about MOHs

The hiring freeze is hitting young FSOs uniquely hard. I joined USAID’s Foreign Service through a program aimed at attracting diverse young professionals. My partner and I have been together more than eight years, but we are unmarried—in our case, for personal and cultural reasons that are no one else’s business. A lot of young, multicultural FSOs are in similar positions, but our partners wish to accompany us overseas in hopes of continuing our relationships—and careers.

My partner, a young development professional, is accompanying me to my first post as member of household (MOH). Before the hiring freeze, he planned to apply for a mission job, even though as an MOH he had the lowest hiring preference, far behind EFMs. Our mission was committed to helping him secure a position. In contrast, we have received virtually zero support from Washington simply because we are unmarried; we were even shut out of basic resources like job fairs.

Now with the freeze, my partner has very few employment options, especially given the added burden of being entry-level with relatively little experience. The term “EFM hiring freeze” is a misnomer, as those jobs were once open to our unmarried MOH community members, too. EFMs aren’t the only ones left “out in the cold.”