State Department Ices Out Military Spouses

Policy change makes it difficult for military spouses to maintain federal employment

Secretary of State Antony Blinken / Reuters
May 18, 2022

The State Department is making it more difficult for federal employees who travel overseas with their military spouses to keep their jobs.

Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) and Maggie Hassan (D., N.H.) say a recent change to the State Department's employment policies make it difficult—if not impossible—for federal workers who accompany their military spouse overseas to maintain their jobs while abroad. The change also affects the federally employed spouses of government workers assigned to overseas posts.

Blackburn and Hassan are investigating the State Department over the policy shift, which was issued in a little-noticed change to the agency's employment guidelines. It is unclear why the State Department tightened restrictions on those trying to work overseas, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which massively affected the State Department's workforce.

The lawmakers allege the Biden administration is essentially denying "all telework requests for federal employees assigned to or near military installations." They wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken requesting the State Department provide a host of documents related to the policy change.

"These recent changes to the policy guidance have had a negative impact on federally employed spouses who are accompanying their spouse on government assignment or military orders overseas," the lawmakers wrote, saying that they are in touch with government workers who have been told their work-abroad agreements are "at risk of being revoked" due to the policy change. Others, they say, have been placed on extended leave with pay pending a review of their requests, while still others "have been denied approval entirely" despite having an approved telework agreement.

The shift in policy comes at a delicate time for federal workers as coronavirus restrictions wane and employees return to their offices. The federal government faces employee shortages and other complications as a result of the COVID vaccine mandate, to which an unknown number of federal employees have objected. Those who are unvaccinated have been barred from their offices in some cases and forced to take leaves of absence.

The Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas program (DETO), which has historically accommodated those who must travel overseas and want to maintain their job, is particularly important for the federally employed spouses of American military members. Preventing these individuals from continuing their work overseas is expected to impact recruiting and retention for the U.S. military, which also is facing staffing issues due to the COVID vaccine mandate. Around 40,000 active service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines face expulsion for challenging the vaccine mandate, though the official number is unknown, according to estimates by congressional investigators.

Though teleworking agreements are rare in the federal government due to the associated costs, Blackburn and Hassan want to know why the program has been scaled down.

"As continued affects [sic] from COVID-19 remain ongoing, has the Department of State looked into potentially raising any numerical caps to allow federally employed trailing spouses, including military spouses, to continue to use, and expand the use, of DETO agreements?" they ask Blinken in their letter.

They also want to know what prompted the policy change. The lawmakers asked for information on how many federal employees are currently on leave or leave without pay due to a pending telework agreement request. This also includes the number of applications that have been outright denied.