Military Spouse Employment Policies

2/1/2021

Military uniform with wedding rings.

The ability of military spouses to find work and sustain careers through frequent moves is vital to the stability of an all-volunteer force. Yet military spouse unemployment remains five times higher than the civilian population, and those who are employed earn much less than their counterparts.

A recent study by Blue Star Families found that the unemployment, underemployment, and reduced labor force participation among military spouses cost the U.S. economy almost $1 billion per year. 

Military spouses are well educated and highly qualified for a range of careers, but frequent moves make it difficult for them to stay on a consistent career path. Switching jobs leaves little room for professional growth or establishment within a company, and some employers shy away from hiring military spouses because they know they will eventually be leaving.

Occupational licensing regulations present another obstacle to employment. As much as 34% of military spouses work in a profession requiring licensing or certification, primarily in the health and education-related fields. A 2019 DoD survey found that one in five military spouses who work in a licensed profession waited 10 months or more to get their credential after a move. 

All told, military spouses faced a 22% unemployment rate and a 26% wage gap compared to their civilian counterparts before COVID-19. While there is some uncertainty about how much the military spouse unemployment rate changed due to the pandemic, there is little doubt it has increased. 

State Policy Options to Assist Military Spouses

Despite significant legislation in recent years, military spouses continue to grapple with regulations and processes that can make it difficult to find work, particularly in licensed professions.

Most state policies involve one or more of the following approaches: licensure by endorsement, temporary licensure, and expedited review of applications. A growing number of states now exempt military spouses from licensure altogether. Fee waivers, expiration date extensions and participation in interstate compacts are also common. 

States can also provide substantial unemployment benefits for military spouses who are forced to relocate, offer employers tax credits for hiring military spouses, encourage the employment of military spouses in state government, and more.

Licensure by Endorsement

Licensure by endorsement is a process whereby a board issues a permanent license without further examination to applicants who hold a valid license in another jurisdiction with similar standards. At least 32 states—Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming—offer licensure by endorsement for military spouses who relocate based on a military transfer. 

For example, North Carolina requires occupational licensing boards, with the exception of the Board of Law Examiners, to issue a license to a military spouse if he or she satisfies the following conditions:

  1. Holds a current license in another state with substantially similar requirements. 
  2. Can demonstrate competency in the occupation through methods as determined by the board, such as having completed continuing education credits or having experience in the occupation for at least two of the preceding five years. 
  3. Has not committed any act in another state that would have necessitated disciplinary action in North Carolina. 
  4. Is in good standing in the state of licensure. 
  5. Pays required fees. Other state laws are less detailed, though all rest on a determination by the board that a license issued in another state is equivalent to their own.

Temporary Licensure

Almost all states allow military spouses to receive a temporary license upon relocating. A temporary license allows an individual to practice his or her profession while fulfilling requirements needed to qualify for a permanent license, or while awaiting verification of documentation to support an endorsement. These licenses are typically valid for six months and not eligible for renewal. 

Temporary licenses can be issued regardless of whether the requirements in another state are equivalent. In Maryland, for example, licensing boards may issue a temporary license to a military spouse with the understanding that he or she must complete additional requirements to be fully licensed (Md. Bus. Reg. Code Ann. §2.5-106). The board cannot issue a license if doing so would pose a risk to public health, welfare, or safety.

Expedited Review 

A military spouse who relocates to a state has little time to wait for a license application to be reviewed. At least 37 states require that licensing boards expedite review for military spouses: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia.

Most state laws do not set any timeframe around expeditious review. In South Dakota, however, if a board cannot make a final determination within 30 days, they must issue a temporary license (S.D. Codified Laws Ann. §36-1B-1). As of December 2020, licensing boards in North Carolina are required to review applications from military spouses within 15 days (2020 House Bill 1053).

Montana’s licensing boards are authorized to approve an application for an endorsement or temporary license based on an affidavit stating that the information provided is accurate and that the necessary documentation is forthcoming (Mont. Code Ann. §§37-1-304 et seq.). Boards can suspend or revoke a license should any discrepancies surface after the fact. The law applies to all out-of-state license holders, not specifically military spouses.

Licensing Exemption

Some states are taking licensing reform a step further by exempting military members and spouses from licensure requirements. In 2018, Utah passed Senate Bill 227, which allows active-duty service members and their spouses to practice a number of occupations without requiring a distinct license in Utah, as long as they hold a current license in good standing in another state and pay all applicable fees.

Arkansas enacted similar legislation in 2019. Senate Bill 564 requires licensing entities to grant automatic licenses to active duty service members, returning veterans and military spouses who hold a valid license in another jurisdiction. Arizona House Bill 2569 of the same year allows individuals who are licensed and in good standing in another state to freely practice in Arizona, provided they pay the required fees. The language specifically limits the provisions in the bill to individuals who either establish residence in the state or are married to an active duty service member and accompanying their spouse on their official change of station to Arizona. Military spouses would need to be licensed in another state for at least one year and possess a license that has not been previously revoked in any other state or country.

Fee Waivers

The total cost of licensure is comprised of examination fees, application fees, initial licensure fees, background check fees and sometimes other miscellaneous fees as outlined in statute. Military spouses may be deterred by the high cost of licensure, particularly those who have experienced frequent moves.

At least seven states—Florida, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia—waive or reduce licensing fees for military spouses. For example, Nebraska waives all fees for initial licensure for military families, including spouses (2020 LB 112). New Mexico waives all fees for the first three years a license is valid (2020 HB 30). Military spouses applying for a teaching license in New York pay a reduced application fee (N.Y. Educ. Law §6501).

Expiration Date Extension

At least four states—Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin—extend the expiration date of an occupational license held by the spouse of an active duty service member living outside of the state. For example, West Virginia allows a military spouse to retain his or her license in good standing without payment of fees or satisfaction of continuing education requirements during, and up to six months following, the soldier’s active duty service (W. Va. Code §30-1B-4).

Interstate Compacts

Compacts are a common tool for states looking to break down the barriers to license reciprocity and license portability. For example, 21 statesAlabama, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyominghave joined Recognition of EMS Personnel Licensure Interstate CompAct (REPLICA), a multi-state compact for the Emergency Medical Services profession. The compact includes provisions related to licensing for veterans, service members and their spouses. The Physical Therapy Licensure Compact, counting 29 states as members, also includes provisions specific to military spouses.

Clarification and Enhancement of Existing Policies 

States that have already enacted legislation on military spouse licensure can work to streamline and improve existing policies and procedures. Examples include auditing programs meant to ease barriers to employment for military spouses, effectively communicating licensure processes, providing professional development for board staff on issues related to military spouses, and improving data collection on military spouse licensure processes.

For example, Washington Senate Bill 5359 of 2017 requires agencies to file reports with the Legislature and Washington State Military Transition Council. They must also appear annually before the joint committee on veterans’ and military affairs to report on implementation of occupational licensing laws for veterans and military spouses. In 2020, the state created the position of military spouse liaison within the Department of Veterans Affairs (SB 6626). The liaison is charged with, among other things, developing a common form for military spouses to complete highlighting specific skills, education, and training to help them find meaningful employment in relevant economic sectors.

Illinois designated a military liaison within the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation in 2019 (HB 1652). Some of the liaison’s responsibilities include managing all expedited applications, coordinating with military installations within the state, and training the directors of each division within the agency that issues occupational or professional licenses. The bill also provided greater flexibility to military spouses who wish to apply for an expedited license based on the knowledge that they will be relocating to Illinois within six months.

Legislation passed in 2020 in North Carolina requires all licensing boards to post to their websites a document summarizing opportunities available to veterans and military spouses (HB 1053). It also requires boards to report annually on the number of applicants who are military spouses, the number granted a license, the number denied a license for any reason and a summary of the reasons for denial.

Unemployment Benefits 

Military spouses may lose up to nine months of salary following a military transfer. Unemployment compensation, though often less than previous earnings, can provide financial stability to military families while a spouse looks for work in a new location.

Generally speaking, when an employee leaves a job voluntarily, that person is ineligible for unemployment benefits. However, many states have recognized that military spouses who resign due to a military transfer have not done so voluntarily. Forty-seven states (exception Idaho, Louisiana, North Dakota) allow military spouses to receive unemployment compensation. The amount and duration of the benefit vary by state, as well as eligibility criteria.

Employer Tax Credits

At least 11 states—Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New York, Utah, Washington and West Virginia—currently provide an income tax credit to private employers that hire one or more veterans. Credits range from $1,000 to $15,000 for each veteran hired.

New Jersey (AB 1208) and Virginia (SB 460) are currently considering bills to provide tax credits to businesses that hire military spouses, up to 25% of wages. Virginia’s bill includes self-employed military spouses as well. Lawmakers in New Jersey are also considering an income tax credit for professional relicensing fees incurred upon relocating to state (AB 2704).

Other State Action

  • Rhode Island 2017 HJR 6351, Adopted: Creates a special legislation commission to study veteran and military spouse education and employment opportunities.
  • Washington 2019 Exec. Order 1: Relates to veteran and military family transition and readiness support. Directs various offices to address barriers to starting and growing military spouse-owned businesses. Directs agencies to develop annual plans to increase the employment representation of veterans and military spouses. Requires agencies to review job postings and applicant screening and selection tools to ensure they do not exclude transferrable military and military spouse employment skills and experience.

Federal Action  

In addition to states, the federal government is also taking action to address the high rates of military spouse unemployment and underemployment.

The U.S. Department of Labor is working across all levels to elevate promising implementation practices around the country. The agency has created a number of resources for licensing boards, states and other interested stakeholders to consider, including state profiles, webcasts, training guides, and more.

The Department of Defense is also working to improve the employment outlook for military spouses. The Military Spouse Employment Partnership (MSEP) connects military spouses with hundreds of partner employers who have committed to recruit, hire, promote and retain them. The MSEP currently has 500 partners who have hired more than 175,000 military spouses since 2011.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative has been helping veterans, transitioning service members and military spouses find meaningful work since 2011. To date, more than 31,000 veterans and military spouses have found jobs through Hiring Our Heroes events, and more than 2,000 companies of all sizes have committed to hire 710,000 people. Of those commitments, there have been more than 505,000 confirmed hires.

In addition to hiring events, military spouses can also take part in the Hiring Our Heroes Military Spouse Professional Network, which provides military spouses with career development and networking opportunities at 55 locations in military communities in the U.S. and around the world. Military Spouse Economic Empowerment Zones have also been created with the assistance of public and private sector supporters to establish a range of local employment-related tools to help tackle military spouse unemployment and underemployment.