The Foreign Service Journal, November 2023

18 NOVEMBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL families, and now formalizing that via executive order, stands in sharp contrast to the White House’s one-line nod to “those who uproot their lives every few years when a [public servant] family member’s job calls on them to find a new home” in the 2023 Proclamation on Public Service Recognition Week. To be sure, not everything has been at a standstill. The Foreign Service Families Act of 2021 (FSFA) was a major achievement in closing certain gaps between military and overseas nonmilitary service considerations. The FSFA applies provisions of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act concerning residential leases and cell phone contracts to members of the U.S. Foreign Service, compels in-state tuition for Foreign Service children, and directs the Secretary of State to do more to promote family member employment. As AFSA Advocacy Director Kim Greenplate wrote in the March 2022 FSJ: “The [FSFA] achieves more for Foreign Service parity with the U.S. military than any effort in recent memory.” Even so, the department’s data show that of the more than 12,000 nonmilitary adult family members based overseas, 55 percent (more than 7,000) are not employed. It is reasonable also to assume that many more are underemployed. In raw numbers, the number of U.S. government civilians and their family members based abroad is relatively small compared to our uniformed colleagues and counterparts. But military families also tend to live on large, secure, fairly well-resourced installations with on-site American health care, education facilities, banking, commissaries, and retail exchanges. The families of Foreign Service members and others often spend as much or more time overseas but are posted in less supportive places with higher hardship scores because of their isolation, persistent security threats, lack of modern health care, and/or insufficient schooling options. All of that comes on top of the regular moves every two to three years, like the military, and spouses having few meaningful opportunities to maintain or advance their careers either inside the mission or on the local economy. What Needs to Be Done There are certainly differences between military and nonmilitary service, and with them come some unique problem sets, needs, and solutions. The family situations of enlisted members of the military, for example, tend to differ greatly from those of the officer ranks and of officers in nonmilitary agencies. As military spouse Melissa Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post in July, some data show that family food insecurity is a significant problem in the enlisted ranks. And with deployments to some countries, such as to NATO ally Italy, military spouses are prohibited from working off-base at all without losing their status. But, as noted earlier, the unemployment rate of nonmilitary spouses is staggering, and the terms of many bilateral work agreements (BWAs), at posts where they apply, also leave much to be desired in terms of both content and clarity. Indeed, lack of any sort of interpretive guidance from the State Department leaves U.S. employers who might otherwise be flexible with teleworking FS spouses with uncertainty concerning possible corporate tax or tort liability. Finding that exposure unacceptable, some companies have put their FS-spouse employee(s) in the untenable position of having to either stay behind (and, presumably, collect a separate maintenance allowance from the State Department), or resign. Just as the E.O. calls for legal assistance judge advocates to provide military spouses advice related to employment, the State Department can do more to bring clarity to BWAs. Considering all of the above, and in full acknowledgment that there are legislative underpinnings to certain benefits exclusive to military families, we should be able to expect the president, the White House, and the U.S. government to be more inclusive of nonmilitary public servants’ spouses and families when devising economic opportunity and professional advancement programs in consideration for the inherent and imposed hardships of frequent overseas moves in their extraordinary service to the United States. From that perspective, E.O. 14100 took a big step in the wrong direction, and unnecessarily so. Indeed, the text of the FSFA itself demonstrates just how easy it is to include language benefiting “member[s] of a qualifying Federal service” versus simply “the Armed Forces.” The Foreign Service Families Act of 2021 itself demonstrates just how easy it is to include language benefiting “member[s] of a qualifying Federal service” versus simply “the Armed Forces.”