The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2017
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It’s Hard Out There for a Spouse

If you’ve been a Foreign Service spouse for any length of time,

you know all about resilience and creativity in the face of under-

employment. You’ve been rejected for jobs that you considered

beneath you, given your educational background, but wanted

anyway. You’ve been told to be happy that “your housing is free”

and you don’t “need” to work. You’ve likely spent days prepping

for an important reception only to be ignored by most of the guests

because you’re nobody important. But even the veteran spouses,

the ones who’ve learned to navigate this strange world with smiles

on their faces, say they haven’t seen anything this bad before.

One spouse laments the “inconsistent and often contradic-

tory updates and messages” coming out of HR and the front

office at her post. Another remarks that she knows of “at least

two spouses who are seriously considering going on SMA

[separate maintenance

allowance] and returning

to the States simply to be

able to work.” In both cases,

she says, “college expenses

are a major factor.” Even

overseas, where costs can

sometimes be lower, it isn’t

always easy to make ends

meet on one salary.

And it’s even worse in

D.C. One FSO who recently

returned to the States

planned to stay here for the

next four years to get his son through high school. But with the

freeze in place, his wife can’t find a job in her field, and the family

can’t afford to live on one salary in Northern Virginia. They are

looking to bid out again as quickly as possible, before they plow

through all of their savings. Another spouse, the wife of a D.C.-

based DS agent, says she and her husband bought a house after

she was hired into a Civil Service job. But the freeze went into

effect before her job started, and now the couple is trying to figure

out how to make their mortgage payments when half of their

expected income has suddenly vanished.

What about Unaccompanied Posts?

The situation is bad enough if you’re preparing to move to a

traditional post this summer. But for FSOs getting ready to transfer

to an unaccompanied post, some of whommade the decision to

do an unaccompanied tour because they knew they could bring

their spouses along if the spouses could find work at post, the

situation looks even more dire. If you lined up an EFM job, for

example, in Baghdad, you would be organizing a packout and

getting ready to uproot your family. But now that your promised

EFM job has disappeared, can you even go to post with your FSO

spouse? One couple lined up a job for the FSO and a job for the

spouse before enrolling their children in boarding school and

making plans to be away for a year. But as of press time, the spouse

has been told not to come to post.

“We’re straddling options at this point,” says the FSO. The

couple is scheduled to depart for post this summer, and they

decided to “go the boarding school route” for the kids. But then,

says the FSO, “the hiring freeze kicked in”—leaving all of their

plans up in the air. “At this point, for us, we just need to know so

we can make decisions. It’s a whole lot more uncertainty than any

of us would choose.”

One long-term spouse

currently overseas says

“there is absolutely no

indication that this admin-

istration has any interest

inmission staffing, from

either a practical or amorale

perspective.” She encour-

ages spouses at her post “to

bemoving to Plan B right

now: teleworking, freelanc-

ing, working on the local

economy or, if those are not

possible, obtaining certifica-

tions and degrees toward such a time as they will be able to work.”

“I’ve been a Foreign Service spouse for 24 years, and I can’t

remember there ever being a freeze like this,” writes a D.C.-based

spouse. “It is devastating for families and demoralizing for those

blocked out of positions.” She says someone needs to “remind

management that hiring spouses saves money!”

Hiring Spouses Saves Money

But HR already knows that hiring spouses makes financial

sense. “We need our family members,” says Mike Tulley, director

of the Office of Overseas Employment (HR/OE). He notes that

hiring an EFM is a cost-effective use of resources at post. Family

members, he says, have broad overseas experience and can be

up and running quickly in any new job at a new post. And make

no mistake: the jobs they do aren’t busywork. EFMs overseas

maintain and repair both classified and unclassified computer

networks. They dispense medicines and give inoculations. They

Spouses are typically the

backbone of the community:

they are the ones who volunteer

in the schools, manage the

commissaries and welcome

the newcomers.